A few months ago, PEN Foundation decided to honour Charlie Hebdo at its annual New York Gala, by giving it its Freedom of Expression Courage award. In response, a few prominent writers withdrew from attending the gala. “Six authors in search of a bit of character“, was what Salman Rushdie tweeted, when he heard about this. In a longer comment, Rushdie rejected the distinction between supporting Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, and endorsing the content of its cartoons, and wrote that “this issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence.” In writing this, Rushdie was taking a side in what has recently become a fractious and acrimonious debate. One point of view has it that certain core values of the European Enlightenment – reason, free speech, and secularism – are under serious threat from “fanatical Islam”, and must be defended at all costs. This is the point of view that Rushdie endorsed.
One can, of course, oppose the argument without resorting to caricatural arguments of cultural relativism. Many have, indeed, pointed out its simplicity, its ahistorical understanding of the Enlightenment, and its propensity to reduce the world into binaries. But that is not at issue here: Salman Rushdie is perfectly entitled to his views, and indeed, given his circumstances, perhaps more entitled to hold them than most others. The problem arises when he attempts to use the vehicle of fiction – and, specifically, that of the fairy tale – to stuff his politics down our collective throat. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights, his latest book, bears all the signs of an excellent writer who has begun to take himself and his politics too seriously for his art.
Two Years Eight Months Twenty Eight Nights (which adds up to a thousand and one nights) is ostensibly a story about an epic battle between rival Jinn armies around the present time, using our world as their battleground. The ultimate origin of the quarrel is mirrored in an earthly quarrel going back almost a millenium: between the rationalist philosopher Ibn Rushd, and the religious hardliner Ghazali. A long time ago, when the commerce between the human world and the world of the jinns was regular, Dunia, a Jinn princess, fell in love with Ibn Rushd for his reason. Her descendants, now spread out across the world, can be known by their missing earlobes. At the same time, Ghazali had released the jinn Zumurrud Shah from captivity in a bottle, and postponed his three wishes to a more opportune day. Now, with the slits between the world of humans and the world of jinns open again, Ghazali claims his wish, which is that Zumurrud (and his jinn companions) spread fear throughout the world in order to bring everyone to the path of the true religion. In this battle, Dunia (who has always loved humans), and her descendants are arrayed on the other side.
So far, the premise is suitable for an entertaining story, with unmistakable – yet unintrusive – political resonances. At some point, however, Rushdie seems to forget that his primary task is to spin a good yarn, and allows the politics to take over. Dunia’s forces are the defenders of (Enlightenment) reason, and Zumurrud (and the other “Grand Ifrits”) represent religious fundamentalism. At certain points, the allegory becomes so thinly veiled, that it is almost jarring. For instance, while recounting a parable within the main story, Rushdie writes a page-and-a-half of prose that is unsubtly about the political situation in present-day India, complete with the most favourite political slogans of our day: “anti-national”, “development” etc. Such references can make for good, and witty, political polemic, but a story is simply the wrong medium for such obvious point-scoring.
As I struggled through the book, it reminded me more and more of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. A book that began as a gripping, engaging story, gradually began to relegate the story part of itself to the background, until it became clear that it was a sideshow, in service of a distinctly non-story goal. In The Fountainhead, that was Howard Roark’s courtroom speech. In Two Years Eight Months Twenty Eight Nights… well, I will refrain from spoilers, but suffice it to say that it was a mercy that, when it finally came, it was only a page long, and nowhere near as arduous as Roark’s never-ending defense of selfishness.
I am reminded of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a book that Rushdie wrote during his period of enforced exile-and-hiding in the shadow of the Ayatollah’s fatwa. Haroun is, and always has been, one of my favourite books. And now, looking back, I feel that it makes all the political points that Rushdie tries so hard with Two Years… Haroun’s two realms of “Gup” and “Chup”, of the battle over saving the ocean of stories from being destroyed by those who would not have any stories in the world, speaks to the issues of our day – censorship, conformity, violent suppression of difference – far more powerfully than Two Years… The reason, I think, is that as Kundera pointed out, the novel stops being a novel when it begins to make definitive statements about the nature of things (in Two Years, the definitive statement is about the superiority of reason over unreason, although Rushdie does make a token attempt to undermine it in the last paragraph of the novel). The purpose of the novel, as Kundera argues, is to depict “the world as ambiguity, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters), to have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty.” There is very little ambiguity, however, in Two Years…
Recently, I skimmed a review of another reader who was none too impressed by Two Years…, and asked Rushdie to retire. That, I feel, is a little harsh. There are moments in the book when Rushdie remembers that he is a writer, and not a political polemicist (at least not here and not now), and crafts words and phrases and sentences of great beauty. For the people of New York during the great war, for instance, “their childhoods slipped into the water and were lost, the piers built of memories on which they once ate sweets and pizza, the promenades of desire under which they hid from the summer sun and kissed their first lips.”
Unfortunately, those moments are too few and too far between in this book.