The existence of the jinn posed problems

two-years-eight-months-28-nightsTwo Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights
by Salman Rushdie

This has everything you might expect in a Rushdie novel: gods, religion, satire, myth, history, sarcasm and wordplay. But it is much more readable than the other novels of his that I have tackled (The Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children, Shalimar the Clown, The Ground Beneath Her Feet). The tone is lighter, more comic, even though the topics are just as weighty.

The story begins in 12th century Spain, with exiled philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes (who existed in real life and is the source of Rushdie’s family name). He falls in love with Dunia, who is secretly a jinnia (female jinn). She bears him dozens of children but he refuses to marry her and leaves her when his exile is lifted.

Skip 800 years and one of the Duniazát, as Rushd and Dunia’s descendents are called, has begun to float. Mr Geronimo is a gardener in New York City, just one of many victims of the “time of strangenesses” – the result of a war between the Jinn leaking into the human world. The normal rules of physics no longer apply.

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Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

(CC-BY Ed Lederman/PEN American Center)
(CC-BY Ed Lederman/PEN American Center)

Salman Rushdie, Festival of Ideas
St George’s Hall, Bristol, 11 October

On Sunday afternoon I saw Salman Rushdie in the flesh! Rushdie was visiting Bristol to promote his new novel Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (a title his publishers apparently thought cumbersome). St George’s Hall was packed to the rafters with fans keen to hear, well, pretty much anything the great man had to say, though he stayed mostly on topic.

The new novel was written in part as a reaction against the act of writing memoir (Rushdie’s previous book, Joseph Anton, documented his 10 years in hiding following the 1988 fatwa against him) – he felt an emotional desire to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, to make stuff up again. Rushdie was inspired by the Arabian Nights and here, as always, he feels he is part of the grand old tradition of non-naturalistic fiction – possibly the oldest form of world literature, encompassing fairy tales, heroic epics and other forms that seek to spread the collective wisdom of the human race.

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No ordinary life

Midnight’s Children
by Salman Rushdie

Wow. I have struggled for three weeks with this book and there were times I hated it, times I wondered why I was punishing myself, but now that I am finished I find myself captivated by it, stunned by the world it created and almost, possibly, missing it.

This is no ordinary book. If the mass of prizes it has won – Booker Prize 1981, James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1993, Best of the Booker 2008 – do not convince you of that, then let me. I read a lot and I assure you that this is a very different book. It most definitely stands out. I am reasonably certain, though, that I will never call it a favourite. It’s just too hard a slog.

Rushdie is not known for being an easy or accessible writer but I have read three other of his books and this was by far the hardest for me. The style is complex, rambling almost, repetitive and yet secretive, at pains to point out patterns and symbolism, to explain history and myth, at the expense of making ordinary lives hard to follow. Although, if we’re to believe the narrator (a tricky one, as I’ll explain), no life is ordinary: “How many things people notions we bring with us into the world, how many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility…To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that.”

The story is told by Saleem Sinai, a 30-year old Indian man, speaking both to us (in the form of writing his autobiography) and to his lover Padma. The book is split into three sections – his family history leading up to his own birth, his childhood, and his adulthood. Unusually for me, I found the adulthood section easiest to read, perhaps that’s because I was finally fully engrossed in the book by that point. Saleem was born at midnight on 15 August 1947 – the exact moment of India’s independence. Thanks to rich parents and a media campaign he is hailed as a symbol of the new nation, and indeed as a narrator he takes great pains to draw parallels between every incident in his life, large or small, and the fate of the nation.

Which is a big story to tell. The first 30 years of independent India were turbulent, to say the least, and Saleem does not move quickly. He lingers on details, gets sidetracked by memories or lost memories, resists telling what is difficult to tell, lies even. He is quite possibly the most unreliable narrator I have come across. He admits this multiple times, accusing his memory of failing him, though he has other excuses on some occasions: “I told you the truth…Memory’s truth…It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality…and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

And then there’s the magical realism. I have come across this before, but perhaps never quite so fully as in this book. The magical is central to the book and yet, just possibly, could be explained away as not magical at all. I will try not to give away too much, but it relates to how Saleem discovers that he is just one of 1001 children born in India during the first hour of India’s independence, and his attempts to create a community of “Midnight’s Children” and to follow all their fates. They are not all, thankfully, introduced as characters, but a handful of them in addition to Saleem’s own family and neighbours gives this book a large enough cast of characters to confuse me at times. Generally, though, Saleem spends plenty of words on reminding you of who someone is, with a string of nicknames related to characteristics or incidents in their pasts.

There is a lot of humour to balance out the necessarily harsh details of a country that suffered riots, war, police brutality and much else in this time period. Padma, our fellow listener, quite often interjects with disbelief or frustration or even contradiction to Saleem’s narrative. Many characters are described with far-from-subtle abnormalities, bordering on the grotesque, like a cast of circus freaks. Saleem’s view of the world is immensely narcissistic (he does, after all, believe his life to be inextricably linked with that of his great mother country) and yet his cruellest words are often aimed at himself.

Mostly, Saleem is a vessel through which the early story of India and Pakistan can be told. His family is ostensibly Muslim (though not devout) so that though he is born and initially raised in Bombay (as it was then called), other family members go to Pakistan shortly after its creation. The action moves throughout the two countries (three countries, after Bangladesh comes into being), with Saleem somehow being wherever the news is being created, where the eyes of the world are focused (or perhaps should be focused, but aren’t). It’s a stretch, certainly, but the whole is told in such a style that you either have to believe he is making it all up to make his point, or you have to suspend disbelief and accept it all, magic included.

As a story of India it is fascinating and I learned a lot. I was particularly struck by the resistance, almost cynical, to considering India a great nation: “A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulted into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history…was nevertheless quite imaginary…a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will.” And yet it made me want to learn more, want to go there and see the great festivals where paint is thrown over people in joyous celebration of life, where Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and numerous other religions have existed side-by-side for centuries, thousands of years even (not always peacefully, admittedly), where smell is a hugely important part of daily life (so often left out of descriptions in books, in this one it plays a central role).

But I can’t deny that I struggled, I found it hard to read. Not because of subject matter or lack of interest – the style itself is tough-going. And because of that, those times I have been asked, while reading it, if I would recommend it to others…I honestly didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer.

See also: review by The Girl.

First published by Jonathan Cape in 1981.

Putting the story into history

Shalimar the Clown
by Salman Rushdie

This book is very much about its settings. The time and place of events is irrevocably linked to the story and I found that intriguing. It doesn’t hurt that I have a long-held fascination with India and it is India, perhaps unsurprisingly, that is depicted with the greatest affection.

I found the writing more accessible than I had expected, which was good because a lot of the story is set in war-torn Kashmir and I’m not a big fan of war stories (Yes they’re very important and the genre includes some genuinely great writing but sitting down day after day to read about military tactics and lots of people dying in gruesome ways? Not my cup of tea), so I needed something to keep me in.

Thankfully there’s a lot more to the novel than that. It centres around four characters: Max Ophuls – an aged ambassador for the US and World War II Resistance hero, his daughter India – named for the country of her birth though she has no memory of it, Max’s killer – an Indian chauffeur who calls himself Shalimar the Clown, and Boonyi – the Kashmiri beauty who links their lives.

The story begins with Max’s murder on India’s doorstep. It is bloody and calculated. We then go back to learn why it happened. What was it about Max’s past and Shalimar’s that led to this event?

This book isn’t about the plot twists or the ending. The plot is mostly given away from the start. I remember reading once that in India the endings of stories – books and films – are openly discussed without concern for who does or does not know the details already. That was my experience here and it’s a definite break from what I’m used to. Not only does this novel give away it’s own ending but it also discussed the endings of three or four major films.

What makes this book great is the depiction of moments in history from one or just a few people’s perspective. Max was a Jew in Strasbourg in the years leading up to and during World War II and there’s a lot of detail about the gradual change in daily life packed into a small number of pages. A later section is set in LA during the riots of 1992 and again there’s so much detail that the chapter could almost pass for a history essay, if there weren’t a few fictional characters mixed in there.

Boonyi’s Kashmir is described in adoring detail, from the earthly paradise of her youth, when whole villages made a living from traditional arts and crafts and families of different faiths lived side by side without it being an issue (in fact they sometimes helped each other celebrate their religion); to the increasingly fractious, suspicious Kashmir following the India–Pakistan divide, when the valley gradually came under fire from all sides and your religion became all-important; to the deeply scarred warzone that Kashmir had become by the 1990s. It is a tale of tragic loss, of human idiocy and impotence. There were details that were appallingly horrific and, though this is fiction, I don’t doubt closely resemble real events and that sickens me.

The loss of the beauty and happiness of Kashmir is mirrored in the tale of Boonyi. A combination of history and human fallacies lead her ever downward and the world around her follows suit.

There are no particularly sympathetic main characters. Or at least, there weren’t for me. The love stories are touching but the characters involved are too cold or too single-minded for me to like them. My favourite character – and I’m sure the reader is meant to react this way – was the Sikh governor Sardar Harbans Singh who stayed true to his love of Kashmir to the end.

As with any novel with a historical setting it was sometimes unclear which bits were real history and which were fiction. I suppose it doesn’t matter really , except perhaps when words are put in the mouths of real historical figures. Is that okay? Is that allowed?

I greatly enjoyed this and was sad when it ended but it’s not a cheerful book. Consider yourself warned.

Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape.