“. . . with the dark-brown hair”. Only a highly original mind and world-class wordsmith, versed in both Muslim folklore and Western “culture”, could come up with a line like that in a story about jinni more imaginative than that of a lad in another legend and a genie who lived in a lamp. It is just one of the gems in Salmon Rushdie’s latest scintillating novel, “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights” (Random House, New York, 2015). Not since the revelation of the world of Harry Potter has contemporary literature been so enriched by another British writer, uniquely qualified to spin an adult fairy tale for non-Muslim Muggles, unaware of the omnipresence of jinni in our midst and maybe our bodies.
Rushdie clearly had a lot of fun writing this novel, as does the reader accompanying him through this exciting account of the relation between our world and that of the invisible, powerful, mischievous/benevolent jinni who can assume any form they like including human. The principal “revelation” of the story is that sexual intercourse (the favorite occupation of the jinni among themselves) between a jinni princess and a human philosopher resulted in a huge family of people unaware of their hybrid identity and of the hidden powers they possess, or even of the origin of their birthmark, the congenital lack of ear-lobes. Readers will enjoy discovering this world for themselves. Our interest is wondering what real purpose the author had in telling such a tale.
The novel is meant, first of all, to be entertaining light reading. But references to Averroës, Voltaire, Spinoza and Descartes, to Bosch and to Blake, suggest that maybe there is a hidden purpose here, which we may not perceive, just as we fail to recognize the “reality” of the world of jinni who have already infiltrated our own. There is an underlying current of Philosophy and Theology here in the form of sometimes flippant throw-aways and asides that give us a clue to something deeper behind all the adventures of the genus jinni. An eccentric lady, for example “began her long enquiry into pessimism, inspired by both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and, convinced of the absurdity of human life and the incompatibility of happiness and freedom, settled, while still in the first bloom of youth, into a lifetime of solitude and gloom”. Rushdie weaves into his story a dialogue between two philosophers that took place a millennium ago. One, Ghazali, says : “Faith is our gift from God and reason is our adolescent rebellion against it. When we are adult we will turn wholly to faith as we were born to do.” The other, Ibn Rushd (!) replies : “You will see, as time goes by, that in the end it will be religion that will make men turn away from God. The godly are God’s worst advocates. It may take one thousand and one years but in the end religion will shrivel away and only then will we begin to live in God’s truth”.
In his tragi-comic fable, the fatwaed author of “The Satanic Verses” has, if not a hidden agenda, a conviction to share. He leaves no doubt about his opposition to religious faith as a handicap to human fulfillment. It is no accident that in the world of the jinni – as in the magical world of Harry Potter – there is no divinity to be found, since in the future of mankind the very idea of God will be forever sealed in a lamp no amount of rubbing will ever let loose again.
His epilogue could not be clearer : “Fear did not, finally, drive people into the arms of God. Instead fear was overcome, and with its defeat men and women were able to put God aside, as boys and girls put down their childhood toys, or as young men and women leave their parents’ home to make new homes for themselves, elsewhere, in the sun.”