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.

“It was the garden that spoke to Geronimo. It seemed to be clawing at the house, snaking its way inside, trying to destroy the barriers that separated exterior space from interior…the garden was the outward expression of inner truth, the place where the dreams of our childhood collided with the archetypes of our cultures, and created beauty.”

In many ways this is a story about stories. The narration is the plural “we” – future inhabitants of Earth looking back on a time in history that is beginning to pass from fact to fable. There are also lots of stories within the main story, snippets of lives other than those of the main characters, creating a rich tapestry of a whole world of people.

It’s a fun story that is making some serious points. The religious satire is the most pointed. One of the driving forces behind the war of the jinn is that the philosopher Ghazali, the great adversary of Rushd, demanded as payment for freeing a jinn that all mankind should be made to fear God.

“The existence of the jinn posed problems to moral philosophers from the beginning. If men’s deeds were motivated by benevolent or malignant sprites, if good and evil were external to Man rather than internal, it became impossible to define what an ethical man might be. Questions of right and wrong became horribly confusing.”

Some of the “strangenesses”, such as gravity changing for individual people, read to me as satire of climate-change denial – people ignored early signs that something was wrong and now are suffering extreme consequences.

It’s also a love story. Dunia is a near-immortal being who is still in love with Ibn Rushd 800 years after his death. Mr Geronimo is a lonely middle-aged man still in love with his dead wife. There are moments of pain and beauty in both their love stories that are truly moving.

Most of all, it’s a romp – a thrilling adventure with plenty of action, with superhero-like goodies and baddies fighting for the future of mankind. It’s a Marvel film with hundreds of references to literature and history and philosophy.

Published 2015 by Penguin Random House.

Source: Bought at Bristol Festival of Ideas.