September 2015

Noted

‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’ by Salman Rushdie

By Kevin Rabalais
Jonathan Cape; $32.99

Think about Salman Rushdie and try not to conjure the word “fatwa”. The death sentence Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced on 14 February 1989 – his “unfunny valentine”, as Rushdie has labelled it – provides the odd vantages of before and after from which we view the Booker Prize–winning author’s work. For those who believe in the novel as a realm where characters argue their ideas, no matter how blasphemous, Rushdie has become a hero, an indispensable voice for freedom of expression. Each new Rushdie novel, therefore, has the aura of a cultural event. Examine his work in an alternate, fatwa-absent context, however, and we must ask whether he merits his status as one of the word’s most celebrated novelists.

A mischievous, linguistically pyrotechnic energy burns through the pages of Rushdie’s two greatest novels, Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1983). But if depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in The Satanic Verses (1988) hadn’t provoked Khomeini, that novel, and the majority of those that have followed, would have drowned in the literary consciousness.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, or what the numerically astute will recognise as 1001 nights, also lacks the audacity of Rushdie’s early, best work. This latest launches us into a jaunty but unwieldy revision of The Arabian Nights. The highly caffeinated style and baroque structure will infuriate those in search of a cohesive narrative. Rather than visionary, Rushdie’s flamboyance proves reactionary. He borrows from ancient narrative strategies in an attempt to reveal the eternal vigour of the novel, and yet a wide gorge divides this laudable endeavour from what exists in these pages.

In the 12th century, Ibn Rushd, a writer whose books (cue wink) “put his life in danger”, meets Dunia, a princess of the supernatural jinn, “creatures made of smokeless fire”. Rushdie tracks the duo’s lineage throughout the centuries to the near future, a time of “the strangenesses” in which they participate in a battle between light and dark that spans 1001 nights. Through the ensuing web of tales, the reader falls into increasing disorder.

All of Rushdie’s characters have a modern consciousness, and what at first appears to be negligence proves to be part of a loose method to expose the fluid nature of time. “This is the story of our ancestors as we choose to tell it,” he writes, “and so, of course, it’s our story too.” To reveal such all-inclusiveness, Rushdie moves between high and pop culture, producing a whimsical frolic whose pages we can read at random. It will delight fans of The Arabian Nights and Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji but frustrate those still awaiting a novel that equals Rushdie’s pre-fatwa promise.

Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire.

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