In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie combines the literary traditions from A Thousand and One Nights with aspects of Arabic mythology and a dash of our own fascination with apocalypses of the modern age. It is an entertaining novel in its own right, but I can’t help but feel like Rushdie has gone and pulled a John Irving on me and written something on repeat. All the old standbys are here.
Rushdie’s particular brand of magical realism has always been one of absurdity layered atop mysticism. As with Midnight’s Children, this book features people receiving powers all at the same time. The themes here are very much concerned with the nature of God, as well as the nature of humanity itself, and whether humanity is at essence good, evil, or neutral. These sound like heavy questions, and Rushdie occasionally engages with them directly—but at its heart, this is a story about a conflict between the jinn, in which Earth essentially becomes a battleground and the people with powers—descendants of a jinnia princess and therefore part-jinn themselves—conscripts into Dunia’s army to fight the dark jinn who killed her father.
Rushdie’s writing and style are, as always, up to this monumental philosophical undertaking. His prose is beautiful, and reading Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is relaxing even at during its most violent confrontations or wretched moments. I particularly like his descriptions of Peristan and the lives of the jinn. I appreciate his tongue-in-cheek comments about the jinni obsession with sex, or the one off-handed remark he makes about magical realism authors. This kind of wit is a nice tonic to what otherwise might be an odd clash of tones going on here: the over-the-top supernatural and the heavy-handed theological.
Nevertheless, something stopped me from really embracing this book and enjoying it as I have with other novels of Rushdie’s in the past. I blame the characterization, or perhaps the narration. None of the characters felt very real to me. The book is narrated in a dry, textbook style, framed as a chronicle of history from a millennium after these events. And this just makes it difficult to connect to any of the characters. We’re talking evil beings from another world invading ours, and the closest we get to heroes is a geriatric gardener who starts hovering and a psychopath who kills people with lightning. These are interesting ideas for characters, but I didn’t really find myself interested in them as people. Perhaps ironically, the character I ended up sympathizing most with was Dunia. Her grief over losing her father, and the knowledge of the burden she had to assume now as ruler of his kingdom, is a poignant moment that shifts the tone of the novel into decidedly more serious territory.
This book is more literary experiment than actual narrative. Rushdie is very consciously attempting to emulate the stories-within-stories that comprise Arabian Nights. And while I have a lot of appreciation, and sometimes occasionally patience, for these types of experiments, I find myself less and less tolerant of them when their stories and characterization don’t match up. It’s not that I disliked this book. It’s good, on most such metrics. Yet I find myself asking the question: would I rather have read this, or re-read another Rushdie novel I’ve previously enjoyed? It’s not good—or at least, not good for this book—that my answer is the latter.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights has its moments, but in the end all it really did was make me want to read The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children again. So … yay? I guess?