Atheist believes in genies, novel reveals
by Rob Neufeld
Salman Rushdie’s latest novel—“Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” (1,001 nights)—has permitted me to come up with a headline as wild as the one above because the book is so exuberantly and infectiously surreal.
The novel, set in the future, looks back at the present time, when a worldwide cataclysm has opened a barrier that has existed between humans and spirits for a millennium; and all kinds of genies are popping up with their own agendas.
In one scene, Dunia, a female genie, or jinnia, as Rushdie spells it, comes to Mr. Geronimo, an inexplicably levitated man floating above his bed, and informs him, “The fairy world is real...but it does not follow that God exists. On that subject I am as skeptical as you.”
Meanwhile, outside the bedroom, malicious jinn (that’s the plural form of the Arabic word) are making monstrous war on humans at the behest of Ghazali, a millennium-dead radical fundamentalist. Religion has suddenly become wildly popular.
“Just as I suspected,” Ghazali says. “Fear drives men to God.”
Check out the no-earlobe guys
The above subhead was another attention-getter I considered for the main headline because I found it hard to get over the fact that the descendants of Dunia and her 12th century human lover, the philosopher, Ibn Rushd, are genetically marked by earlobe-lessness
Ibn Rushd, by the way, is a real historical figure, otherwise known as Averroes, who sought to reconcile the Muslim religion with reason—in opposition to Ghazali, who sought to demonstrate the failings of reason.
You’ve got to love the way Rushdie loves up his namesake—flabby old body and all—totally in line with his main theme. But the no-earlobe thing, it seems forced, like the sticking-out pinky-fingers that aliens couldn’t hide in the 1960s TV show, “The Invaders.”
Rushdie doesn’t reference “The Invaders,” but his fertile mind introduces dozens of other cultural icons, both scholarly and pop, into the narrative. If you’re going to go through the looking glass like Alice (who is referenced), you might as well have the time of your life seeing familiar names in odd contexts.
During “The War of the Worlds”—the apocalyptic battle between dark jinn and Dunia’s humanized brood—absurdity reigns. Not just Geronimo’s feet-off-the-ground problem, but also a baby that causes skin rot on knaves, a giant that bites off a man’s head like Saturn in the Goya painting, and many other jaw-dropping unrealities.
“In a French town the citizenry began turning into rhinoceroses.” (That’s a Eugene Ionesco reference.) “A Russian official lost his nose and then saw it walking around St. Petersburg by itself.” (That’s from a Nicolai Gogol story.) A Spanish lady has her eyeball sliced while gazing at the moon; and ants crawl out of a hole in a man’s palm. (Both of those things occur in Luis Buñuel’s film, “Un Chien Andalou.”)
These impossibilities are the result of jinnterferrence. (I am allowed to use such wordplay because Rushdie does, too, as in his adjective describing people who have lost their homeland and identity: “Lebanonymous.”)
You have to admire all the tools that Rushdie puts at his disposal, including humor.
Hugo Casterbridge, a composer and essayist who has gone from being an atheist to a believer in divine retribution, publishes an article that reinterprets the Bible.
“On the day that Adam and Eve invented god,” Casterbridge writes, “they at once lost control of him.” God was furious. “‘How did you come up with the idea of me,” (God) demanded, “who asked you to do that?’ and he threw them out of the garden, into, of all places, Iraq.”
Rushdie’s style—some call it postmodernism; some, magical realism—is right for the times. We are inundated with information, stunned by how history is going, and needing to capture people’s attention, so we better come up with a form that clicks.
“These are days of miracle and wonder,” Paul Simon sings—and we might add, Instagram and Tinder, which means I better make every sentence of this review a humdinger or a come-on, or else I’ll lose audience.
Atheist believes in genies
I return to the headline because I have to explain such a blatant statement.
Why would a non-believer in what he sees as destructive self-delusion employ fairy tales and genies in his parable? The answer is: How else are we to defeat unreason and fanaticism?
You can see the solution that Rushdie is heading toward. “When you’re fighting monsters, it’s good to have a few monsters on your side,” Rosa Fast, the mayor of New York tells Jimmy Kapoor, the earlobe-less graphic artist who has become her magic-zapping body guard.
The monster v. monster formula is akin to the two dinosaurs destroying each other in “Jurassic Park.” Rushdie knows there’s a problem with this plot resolution because he covers his bases.
When Teresa Saca Cuartos, one of Dunia’s descendants and deputies, can’t control her otherwise useful murderousness, Rushdie writes, “Rage, no matter how profoundly justified, destroys the enraged.”
So, if you’re a jinni named Dunia, leading the war against the four jinn of the Apocalypse, and you’re fueled by vengeance, you may be resorting to the only way to defeat evil, but how can you expect a good society to come out of it?
Rushdie does expect that, at least in this novel. He needs to hold up the lamp and show that reason can triumph. I have a few problems with that.
First of all, the opposition of reason and faith is a false one, I think. It may make sense when it takes the form of scientists and democracies vying to eradicate barbarous religious zealots. But the issue is more complex in non-extreme cases.
Fanatics’ appropriation of religious faith for war-mongering does not invalidate faith in the same way that the use of nuclear power and the Internet for bombs and spying does not invalidate science.
The problem is not in religion or science, but in how they’re used. Eugenics: enough said.
Second of all, Rushdie's clash-of-titans ending is a metaphysical and not a psychological resolution. No matter how humanized the figures in a metaphysical novel are, the book is going to be intellectual and symbolic.
The most psychological episode in “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” occurs when Dunia opens up a story box that is layered like an onion and which had already poisoned her father.
She is soon flooded with self-doubts, most devastatingly about her father, who had never shown her love and who was disgusted by her half-human children.
“In my unhappiness,” Dunia thinks, “I persuaded myself that my father’s disdain for his daughter was the natural state of affairs, the healthy state, and my female nature was the plague. But here we are at the truth, and it is he who is sick and I who am well. What is the poison in his body? Maybe it is himself.”
Geronimo, who is by Dunia’s side at the moment, also plunges into despair, thinking about his late wife, who, he realizes loved her father more than she ever could love him.
A lot of the psychological crises in the novel involve father issues, and you begin to wonder if this is good symbolic writing, for it is God our Father who is being overthrown in the larger sense.
Third of all, we can’t root out what we call evil nature from good nature. Carl Jung is not referenced in the novel, but he would say that our shadow selves work with our loving selves to create our hope for humanity, and that is, integrated selves.
Rushdie is a brilliant person. He knows this; and because he does, he adds a twist at the very end that makes his 1,000-year hence Utopia look a little less utopian. Though it seems a little like an oops-I-got-carried-away-with-amazing-storytelling, one thing you can conclude is that the new novel is very thought-provoking.
Sir Salman Rushdie gives a free public talk at UNC Asheville’s Kimmel Arena, 7 p.m., Thurs., Feb. 18. His lecture is titled “Public Events, Private Lives: Literature + Politics in the Modern World.” UNC Asheville will also present four companion events the week of Rushdie’s talk. Call 251-6674.