‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’, is the title of one of Francisco Goya’s 18th century etchings, but it is also Salman Rushdie’s choice of epigraph to preface his novel Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Rushdie’s latest story is a tale of the jinn, lightning strikes, and modern day New York that moulds Arabian and Islamic folklore. Featuring a cacophony of characters, Rushdie becomes our very own Sheherazade, substituting Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad for Mr. Geronimo the gardener, Jimmy Kapoor the struggling comic book artist, and Dunia the Princess of Lightning. Whilst Rushdie’s use of the fantastical saturates his prose with a beautiful mysticism, in his attempt to turn his novel into a factual, historical biography, the emotional relationship between his readers and his creation is severed.
Rushdie’s postmodern fairy tale commences with Ibn Rushd, the Aristotelean logician and philosopher in 12th century Andalusia, who holds an enmity with a dead rival, the devout theologian Al-Ghazali. Rushd is disgraced after his retort against Ghazali’s view of philosophy and reason is deemed heretical. In his exile, he rather unwillingly takes a young Jewish girl as a concubine, who unbeknownst to him is the jinni Dunia – unique in her species for harbouring a penchant for humans – who has entered through a tear in the veil between the mortal realm and Fairyland. After Rushd’s death, and before the wormhole closes – two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights after her arrival – Dunia returns to her abode, leaving her children, the Duniazát, to populate the world. Hundreds of years later, a storm rattles the sky: a man is floating several inches above the floor, lightning crackles from the fists of a jealous mistress, an infant rots the skin of the corrupt. The veil has torn once more, and the buried battle between Rushd’s reason and Ghazali’s faith teeters the world into an apocalypse.
Through utilising the mythical as the backbone to his tale, and intertwining it with depictions of city skyscrapers and X-Men posters on bedroom walls, Rushdie concocts a brutal kind of symbolism that reminds a reader of the international and domestic crises being faced in the 21st century: migration, religious extremism, fascism, and racism. Depictions of Fairyland and the jinn blend with references to pop culture, creating a seamless harmony between the reader’s factual and the writer’s fantastical [“a baby-faced tyrant, after Zabardast whispered in his ear, ordered all his subjects to have the same ridiculous haircut as himself”]. The combination creates pockets of unapologetic humour, which wonderfully colours the novel and relieves it from being overwhelmingly brooding: Jimmy Kapoor, after discovering his hybrid jinn and human nature from Dunia, laments that “it isn’t bad enough being a brown dude in America, you’re telling me I’m half fucking goblin as well”.
Yet these light-hearted, comedic crumbs are the only achievement of Rushdie’s work, the remainder consisting of a nonchalant plot and underdeveloped characters: the weird and wonderful are introduced to a Dickensian degree, but most are dropped upon the page and lost until being tersely mentioned in cameo form later. Rushdie takes a Plutarchian ‘Parallel Lives’ approach to his narration, stunting the emotional effectiveness of even his most central characters, making them mouthpieces and nothing more. He saps the realm of Fairyland of all its exciting potentialities and reduces its inhabitants to one-dimensional nymphomaniacs. Rushdie’s Mr Geronimo, the green fingered widower nostalgic for his Bombay childhood, is the only character treated with delicateness and refinement, and yet his impression is flattened by the futuristic, taciturn narration of his descendent, who being in charge of the narration of the entire tale, pulls every other character down as well.
Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights exhibits Salman Rushdie’s explosive virtuosity in language, and yet its world is ashen and grey, devoid of any emotional colour, and its inhabitants reduced to caricatures or simply cut-outs of what they could have been. It is all at once a politically biting historical tome, a whimsical fable, and a typically tragic story of love, sprinkled with magic realism and superhero clichés. The novel and its characters sink under the weight of its themes and elements, leaving the skeleton of Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, but destroying the flesh of its humanity in the process.