Jinns & Tonic: Michele Magwood Talks to Salman Rushdie About His New Book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
The target of the infamous fatwa brings buoyancy and laughs to his new book. By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Salman Rushdie (Penguin Random House)
There’s a milky autumn light outside the windows of the Penguin Random House offices in London. The view from the boardroom high above the street is boundless, far out across glass towers stamped with the reflection of antediluvian domes and steeples, rippling with the russet of the city’s trees.
Inside, at a table stacked with books requiring his signature, Salman Rushdie is remembering his long friendship with Nadine Gordimer. “I met her in the early ’80s, this tiny fierce person, and I kind of fell in love with her, she became like an auntie.” He laughs, remembering a time when she came to New York for a PEN event. Gordimer vanished into the crowds on a downtown street and Rushdie panicked. “I said to someone, we’ve got to find her, we can’t lose a Nobel Laureate! And then I saw her striding out into the middle of the traffic with her arm stuck out commanding a taxi, and I thought ‘She doesn’t need looking after.’ And she didn’t. She was one of the great treasures of world literature. I feel blessed to have known her.”
Rushdie is genial and easily, immensely eloquent. His conversation radiates out into intriguing tributaries, beginning, say, with the Arabian Nights and streaming along to Blade Runner; or with the French Enlightenment, looping through the cult of Wahhabi and the banning of Harry Potter. He laughs often, in mischievous bursts, and is unexpectedly funny. But like all good satirists, his pithy comments often conceal a blade.
His latest book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights – a play on One Thousand and One Nights – is surprisingly funny, too, a phantasmagorical, antic epic that looks backwards a thousand years from now.
“Finally, at the age of 68, people are suddenly saying that I’m a funny writer,” he says. “It’s very gratifying but I think a lot of the books had funny things about them.” Even The Satanic Verses: “What happened with that book was so unfunny that people who hadn’t read it assumed it was unfunny too.” He gestures to his thick memoir, Joseph Anton. “When I finished that book I really had a sense of putting down a burden, of drawing a line under something. I had been carrying this weight around for 20 years and it made my spirit lighter. I think this buoyancy comes through in Two Years Eight Months.”
Buoyant the book may be, but the themes are weighty. It is a postmodern fable about a war of two worlds, a battle between reason and unreason, secularism versus fundamentalism. It begins with a love affair between the real-life 12th century philosopher Ibn Rushd, and the jinn (or genie) Dunia, known as the Lightning Princess, who slips through a slit in the membrane separating our world from hers. The jinn are “creatures made of smokeless fire … whimsical, capricious, wanton.” The couple breed prolifically, sowing the world with their half-human, half-jinn offspring, and centuries late Dunia will return to earth and summon some of these descendants to fight a battle between herself and the dark jinn determined to crush humanity.
As the veil between the two worlds rips apart, New York boils over in an apocalyptic storm, and a series of “strangenesses” begin: a gentle old gardener finds himself separated from his beloved earth and floating an inch above it. A baby abandoned at the mayor’s office causes boils to erupt on the faces of any corrupt politician, and then there’s Jimmy Kapoor, wannabe graphic novelist who, when Dunia tells him of his lineage, exclaims “Vow! It isn’t bad enough being a brown dude in America, you’re telling me I’m half fucking goblin as well.”
The dark jinn are enemies of reason, and, this being Rushdie, religious fundamentalists. As Ibn Rushd predicts, “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.”
There are the deliriously named Swots, “a murderous gang of ignoramuses,” who had studied the art of forbidding things: “painting, sculpture, music, theatre, film, journalism, hashish, voting, elections, individualism, disagreement, pleasure, happiness, pool tables, clean-shaven chins (on men), women’s faces, women’s bodies, women’s education, women’s sports, women’s rights. They would have liked to have forbidden women altogether but even they could see that that was not entirely feasible, so they contented themselves with making women’s lives as unpleasant as possible.”
Rushdie chuckles. “You see, the word ‘taliban’ has always amused me, because the root of the word is talib, which means ‘knowledge or ‘learning’, so the taliban are scholars. And the idea of the most ignorant people in the world calling themselves scholars is just ridiculous, so the Swots come from that. It’s black comedy, isn’t it? That’s why I think the world is so full of magic realism. I don’t have to make it up, it’s right there.”
Rushdie remains unbowed by the diabolical contretemps that blew up around The Satanic Verses in 1989, when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa calling for his death. When Iran boycotted the Frankfurt Book Fair last month in protest at Rushdie giving the opening address, did he fear it was all going to start up again?
“No, I didn’t! I just thought who cares? You don’t want to come? Guess what? Nobody’s going to mind. There’s a bit of me that’s super-bored with being Mr Free Expression, but there it is. And what I said at Frankfurt was we shouldn’t have to be defending this any more. The battle was won. This should just be the air that we breathe.”
Time has run out, but Rushdie wants to talk about a charity he supports in South Africa – The Lunchbox Fund. It provides food for thousands of vulnerable school children across the country. As well as contributing financially, he is on the board of advisors, along with Hugh Masekela and Joaquin Phoenix, all drawn in by the founder Topaz Page-Green. “She’s a remarkable woman. When I first met her, I said – Were your parents hippies? And she rather wonderfully replied – No, they’re geologists.” And there’s that high, buoyant laugh again.
Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood
- Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
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Author image: Salman Rushdie’s website