VETERAN SALMAN RUSHDIE READERS will find in his most recent novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, familiar hallmarks of his prodigious imagination: supernatural elements, wide-ranging social types, outsized (arguably caricatured) characters, allusions to various epic traditions, wordplay, and — it must be said — the traits of a man impacted by religious persecution.
Rushdie’s novel features a “War of the Worlds” between believers and nonbelievers, between faith and reason, set mostly in a New York City of the near future, but narrated over three eras separated by thousand-year spans: the 11th century (the origin of the problem), the 21st century (the crisis), and the 31st century (the solution). Two factions comprise this war: on behalf of religion, dark jinn (or spirits) have descended from the “upper world” to wage war, first on the city and then globally. By wreaking havoc, they aim to instill the fear of God, upending everything secular. Meanwhile, the “good” jinn, based in the West and led by Dunia, Queen of Fairyland, fight on behalf of humanity, secularism, and rationality. Both sides play out a drama that has its origins in a debate about the existence of God by a pair of medieval Muslim philosophers, the ostensibly atheist Ibn Rushd (known as Averroës) and the earlier theist al-Ghazāli. Throwing down the gauntlet from their graves, they task their respective jinn helpers to make their position prevail once and for all.
By associating the dark jinn with Islamist extremism, Rushdie aligns himself with Samuel Huntington’s controversial “Clash of Civilizations” thesis from 1993, which argued that the main axis of conflict after the Cold War would be rooted in religious identity, in particular Western versus Islamic civilization. Though the dark jinn are not themselves believers, they enjoy creating mayhem, deploying lesser jinn to pursue ISIS-esque activities, like stoning women to death in desert locales and shooting down passenger aircraft.
In a recent New Yorker interview, Rushdie explained that with this novel, he wanted to write a modern, adult “wonder tale” in the manner of the Hamzanama or Arabian Nights, or one of his own books for younger readers, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Luka and the Fire of Life (2010). Such stories seem an odd model for the complex political subject matter Rushdie explores in Two Years. Though political themes — particularly that of freedom of speech — were present in “Haroun,” Rushdie rendered them there with a light allegorical touch; writing under the fatwa, he had little choice but to smuggle politics into a seemingly benign form. Now he is not writing under such restriction.
Nonetheless, the content of the novel crucially depends on magic; after all, a “wonder tale” depends on the willingness (or faith) of the reader, however temporary or provisional, to accept miracles: a foundling whose mere presence curdles the skin of the corrupt; levitating men and women; a murderess who can shoot lightning from her fingers; men who can speed up or slow down time and metamorphose anything at will; the jinn themselves, creatures of smokeless fire whose every aspect and action is supernatural. They are quasi-immortal figures inhabiting mortal bodies who shape-shift and travel inconceivably fast, occupying a whole world beyond and inaccessible to our own.
By insisting on the presence of magic, spirits, and miracles in everyday reality, magical realism positions itself as a genre to challenge the thought-structures underlying both Empire and the realist novel. Rushdie has often demonstrated an affinity for magical realism; in Midnight’s Children (1981), for instance, he endows the 1,001 children born at the moment of India’s independence with various supernatural powers. Rushdie’s impetus here was to find a way of perceiving reality that might help undo the damage wrought by massive political and societal transformation.
By the lights of magical realism, strict realism is an affront to cultures of faith, a pronouncement against their deities and spirits. Rushdie himself is explicit that he thought along these lines in his early deployment of magical realism:
As for religion, my work, much of which has been concerned with India and Pakistan, has made it essential for me to confront the issue of religious faith. Even the form of my writing was affected. If one is to attempt honestly to describe reality as it is experienced by religious people, for whom God is no symbol but an everyday fact, then the conventions of what is called realism are quite inadequate. The rationalism of that form comes to seem like a judgement upon, an invalidation of, the religious faith of the characters being described. A form must be created which allows the miraculous and the mundane to co-exist at the same level — as the same order of event. I found this to be essential even though I am not, myself, a religious man.
Over the years, Rushdie has traveled a remarkable distance in his approach to magical realism. In Midnight’s Children, he portrays Shiva, a character with gigantic knees powerful enough to crush anyone’s skull and a virility potent enough to spawn thousands of offspring across the continent. Hyperbolic as these special powers are, they are not random: they are in fact derived from Shiva’s religious namesake, the Hindu God of Destruction whose few drops of sperm was potent enough to spawn the entire cosmos. Religious conceits of this sort are what charge the fantastical elements of the text with significance — not only for the community of characters within the book, but also for the broad community of readers familiar with South Asian tales (whether Indian or not). By contrast, Rushdie loses much in divesting his fantastical elements of their religious-cultural context in Two Years. Having spent almost a decade in hiding, persecuted by religious authorities and fanatics around the world, Rushdie’s view of religion, broadly speaking, has grown increasingly hostile over the years, and this hostility pervades the new novel. Writing a story in which the good guys are nonbelievers who set out to cure the bad guys, the believers, of their faith does not particularly serve this author’s vaunted aspiration for a more peaceful, tolerant world.
The comparison between pre- and post-fatwa Rushdie is striking. The man who began as a secular writer, choosing the aesthetics of magical realism out of respect for the religiosity of the Indians he depicted in his early work, has transformed into a hard-line atheist who sees “religion [as] a medieval form of unreason.” Rushdie’s use of the jinn epitomizes this shift. Sufism — a heterodox sect of Islam known for its syncretism with Hinduism and for its inclusiveness — is the tradition most closely associated with the jinn, although Rushdie does not explicitly acknowledge Sufism as an influence. According to the Qur’an and other Islamic texts, the jinn are, as we see in Two Years, supernatural creatures of smokeless fire who are thought to occupy an unseen world beyond our own. In fact, the very word “jinn” means “hidden,” and is related etymologically to “genius.” Anthropologist Anand Taneja, in his recent ethnography of the culture around jinn, observes Hindus and Muslims alike petitioning and visiting jinn thought to inhabit medieval ruins in Old Delhi. Through the jinn, these supplicants seek a justice denied to them in the realm of the disenchanted and corrupt structures of postcolonial governance. Here in the space of the jinn, Hindus intimately communicate with Muslims — and women with men — about their most intimate longings, however forbidden or frustrated in conventional society.
Rushdie’s conspicuous absence of any reference to the Sufi tradition as the context for the jinn allows the author to have the magic without the religion. He retains the more Disney-like general motifs of jinn — genies trapped in a lantern, flying on urns, or shape-shifting — while neglecting the faithful community whose imagination has conceived them as part of a larger cosmology.
Rushdie’s novel is therefore contradictory in many ways: in featuring a heroic party of jinn fighting against religion, in showing an arch rationalist fall in love with a creature whose existence his rationalist tenets do not recognize, and in writing a supernatural narrative that repudiates the supernatural.
In Two Years, once the slits between the upper (jinn) and lower (human) world have been opened by a storm of epic scale, the “strangenesses” — a host of supernatural phenomena — begin. The novel’s title refers to the period of their duration and is one of the novel’s many allusions to 1001 Nights. Through these strangenesses, the two jinn parties inhabit, mobilize, and devastate humans through a variety of magical tricks. The Duniazat — the horde of seemingly human descendants of the union between Ibn Rushd and Dunia, Queen of Fairyland — are bestowed with odd earlobes and sundry magical jinn powers about which they are ignorant; Dunia’s task is to enlighten them to their jinn status in the fight against the religion-promoting dark jinn. The novel’s anonymous narrator recounts from the future this ancestral history in order to understand how it came to be a utopian Age of Reason — that is, a post-racial, tolerant, secular society of genetically engineered people who can adjust their emotions in a machine-like manner so that they never veer into the extreme registers of their predecessors.
In 1990, a year into the fatwa, Rushdie seemed to have a different notion of the so-called “Age of Reason.” Then, he described the “god-shaped hole” created by secular disenchantment in this way:
It is important that we understand how profoundly we all feel the needs that religion, down the ages, has satisfied […] The idea of god is at once a repository for our awestruck wonderment at life and an answer to the great questions of existence […] It is also important to understand how often the language of secular rationalist materialism has failed to answer these needs.
He identifies politics, religious revivalism, and literature all as offering alternatives for filling the “God-chamber.” He deems the first two not only inadequate but also dangerous. Rushdie criticized the materialism of politics, which does not make room for the spirit nor answer questions of value and meaning: “The increasing mechanization of society has created a mechanical politics [… Politics does not] address itself to the grievances and achings of the soul.” On the other hand, he criticizes the failure of American and Middle Eastern fundamentalisms to satisfy genuine spiritual longings. Literature, therefore, remains the only wholesome alternative for “fulfilling our unaltered spiritual requirements.”
The lucid essays quoted above still show the Rushdie of Midnight’s Children — a writer who felt such a vigorous attraction to religion, particularly the religions of South Asia, that he claimed it led him to choose his characteristic form of novel, magical realism. Though living in hiding from Muslim fundamentalists at the time, he took pains to say in defense of The Satanic Verses (1988):
I knew that Islam is by no means homogeneous, or as absolutist as some of its champions make it out to be. Islam contains the doubts of Iqbal, Ghazali, Khayyam as well as the narrow certainties of Shabbir […] I knew much about Islam that I admired, and still admire, immensely; I also knew that Islam, like all the world’s great religions, had seen terrible things done in its name.
By 2015, Rushdie seems to have lost this equanimous view. Two Years yields skewed representations, from the fictional distortion of al-Ghazāli as doctrinaire to the scenes of bewildered fanatical religious mobs attacking his rationalist protagonists during the time of the strangenesses. Today’s Rushdie presents religion as dogmatic and fearmongering, tarring all religion with the same brush. Maintaining a divide between religion and fantasy, he presents his fantasy figures, the jinn, as indifferent to religion when, in fact, the Qur’anic tradition presents them as keenly aware of their status as God’s creations. Perhaps the author’s paradoxical relation to South Asia — at once wistful for and persecuted by it — explains why he would draw from an Islamic mythic tradition still thriving in South Asia and then scant his source.
In 1981, Rushdie wrote in a critique of V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers (1981), “Terrible things are being done today in the name of Islam; but simplification of the issues, when it involves omitting everything that can’t easily be blistered by Naipaul’s famous Olympian disgust, is no help.” Sadly, this criticism could now be leveled at Rushdie himself. Rushdie’s altered relationship to faith likely traces to his growing detachment from South Asian soil, first due to the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in his once pluralist native city of Bombay (a development he laments often, even in Two Years), and then his personal persecution by Muslim fundamentalists in India after writing The Satanic Verses.
Connections between the author and the hero of Two Years, Geronimo the Gardener, are suggested throughout the novel: both are deeply committed to rationalism; both are solid secularists; both are natives of Bombay; both are putative descendants — quasi-reincarnations — of Ibn Rushd. But their strongest connection is the experience of exile (Geronimo is literally lifted off the ground in the novel). In a poignant passage that could apply to the author, Geronimo’s homesickness for Bombay is described as follows:
[H]e wished he had never become detached from the place he was born, wished his feet had remained planted on that beloved ground, wished he could have been happy all his life in those childhood streets, and grown into an old man there […] he wished he could have roots spreading under every inch of his lost soil, his beloved lost home, that he could have been a part of something, that he could have been himself, walking down the road not taken, living a life in context and not the migrant’s hollow journey that had been his fate.
Then, suddenly, his frame shifts: “Bombay vanished and Peristan appeared.” That last sentence, concluding the wistful passage, is pregnant with meaning: exile from Bombay has lifted Geronimo-cum-Rushdie off the ground of culturally embedded, religiously rich, postcolonial South Asian magical realism and into an ethereal fantasyland. Seeking magic without belief, Rushdie has ended up not with magical realism at all, but rather something we might simply call “magicalism.” While we do not begrudge a writer the right to expand beyond his place of origin, particularly one who has been living in exile, Rushdie defends secularism without acknowledging how it has been long bound to the institutions and ideologies of capitalism and colonialism that are responsible for many of the ills of the globalized world that Rushdie diagnoses — violence, inequality, slavery, and ecological disaster.
The novel ends with an odd caveat made by the narrator speaking from the vantage point of the utopian, secular, rational, sanguine future:
We no longer dreamt. It may be that this time those slits and holes were closed so tightly that nothing at all could leak through, not even the drips of fairy magic, the heaven-dew, which according to legend fell in to our sleeping eyes and allowed us our nocturnal fantasies. Now in sleep there was only darkness. […] We read of you in ancient books, O dreams, but the dream factories are closed. This is the price we pay for peace, prosperity, tolerance, understanding, wisdom, goodness, and truth: that the wildness in us, which sleep unleashed, has been tamed, and the darkness in us, which drove the theater of the night, is soothed. […] Mostly we are glad. Our lives are good. But sometimes we wish for the dreams to return.
This perfunctory caveat does not do much to undo the inconsistencies in the narrative, but it does speak to the author’s ambivalence: Rushdie wants the rationality that he believes is necessary for a peaceful world order, but he cannot give up the dreams, the magic, and the wildness that he associates with destructive forces in the world. He tries to yoke the magic to the rationality, but such a yoking is too forced and too contradictory to be compelling. Rushdie no longer knows where to place his longing for enchantment; he, like so many of us, can no longer fathom the lineaments of history, let alone his place in them.
Bina Gogineni teaches postcolonial literature and theory at Skidmore College. She is currently writing a book that analyzes the nexus of enchantment, colonialism, and the novel form in the Indian context.