After the two children’s books he wrote for his sons generated such pleasure in young readers, Salman Rushdie was inspiredto attempt something similar for adults.
“I just wanted to write a book that people would respond to with deep pleasure, if I could,” he told SF Weekly, days before his Sept. 9 appearance at City Arts & Lectures. “Its primary purpose was to inspire delight.”
The result of his meditation on the pleasure principle was Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (which is to say, 1,001 nights), a tour de force that updates the source text from the arch perspective of one of literature’s most infamous atheists.
“In the Arabian Nights, you have sex and violence and deviousness and skullduggery of all kinds,” Rushdie said. “But there isn’t really a great deal of interest in belief. It’s one of the things that makes those stories read so modern.”
While challenging to classify, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is an apocalyptic yet comic historical novel with magical realist overtones. Briefly summarized, it’s the story of what became of those mythical, pre-Islamic tricksters, the jinn. After an 800-year absence, several of them tear through a “slit in the world” during a Hurricane Sandy-like storm, causing strange phenomena and bringing the age of reason to an end. Characters levitate or acquire superpowers, while powerful jinn named Zumurrud and Zabardast inauguratea reign of terror — until people who trace their lineage tojinn-human hybrids in medieval Spain slay them. And it is an outstanding novel.
Although Two Years is a loose retelling of the Arabian Nights, it’s a novel about cosmopolitanism itself — Rushdie prefers “metropolitanism” — with characters who refer to themselves as “Jewslim Christians.” It’s also a tale of Orientalism striking back, of the Middle East’s own mythos come to life to destroy the West.
But even when meditating on the (almost) end of the world, there is humor in abundance. As with any Rushdie novel, there are nods to contemporary pop culture throughout: Gozer the Gozerian from Ghostbusters, ZZ Top, X-Men, and the TV network Bravo. At one point, a powerful jinn takes a break from wreaking havoc to brush up on films and keep his look relevant. I playfully accused Rushdie of being “something of a hipster.”
“That’s maybe the best compliment I’ve been paid for some time,” he said, “although my children would probably laugh at you for saying so.”
Like David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights runs across space and time, from 12th-century Muslim Spain to 20th-century Bombay, to an atemporal Fairyland New York City of the near-future to the world a millennium hence. Unlike Cloud Atlas, a dazzling workwith a wishy-washy spiritual core, Rushdie’s novel is much more rigorous about how jinns could coexist in a world governed by the laws of physics and moral philosophy (the “irruption of the fantastic into the quotidian,” as he puts it). If it sounds spiritual, it’s anything but, and God — or any type of deity — is conspicuously absent in this book.
“I’m not into spiritual mush,” Rushdie said. “I think there’s a case for banning the word ‘spiritual’ for about 100 years. Because the word is used so lazily, it’s become more or less totally meaningless. So you won’t find much ‘spiritual’ in my shit.”
Spiritual or not, one thread of Two Years involves an abandoned baby with the power to cause people’s moral failures to surface on their bodies as lesions or sores. Scooped up by a progressive mayor of New York, she becomes a weapon against political corruption even as the jinns are destroying the city. In light of this gruesome (but hilarious) conceit, I asked Rushdie for his thoughts on the summer’s quasi-apocalyptic political juggernaut.
“I can’t get enough Donald Trump,” he said. “I want Donald Trump to either be the Republican candidate, in which case the Democrats could run a mop and it would become president, and with better hair, or I want Donald Trump to almost become the candidate and then be so upset he’s not that he decides to run as an independent, and that will elect the above mop.”
Such amused worldliness, nostrils flared and all, is what keeps a book that ostensibly deals with “the terminal disillusion of the human race with the idea of faith” from collapsing into hectoring sourness. It’s as joyful as it is erudite, with even the weightiest literary references coming from unexpected places. I asked about Zumurrud, whom I took to be named for a female character in the Arabian Nights, when Rushdie gently corrected me. His Zumurrud is named for an ogreish giant from a sequence of paintings based on the Hamzanama, 16th-century Mughal tales of the warrior-king Hamza.
And Zabardast? (Apart from a 1985 Bollywood film, I couldn’t find that reference at all.)
“Zabardast, I just made him up,” Rushdie said. “It’s a word which means ‘awesome.’ If you refer to somebody as being zabardast, it means you’re calling them awesome.”
He pronounced it in such a way that I asked for clarification: Does he mean awesome in the Old Testament sense of awe-inspiring, or awesome as in totally awesome?
“I mean both, actually.”