Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-eight Nights, by Salman Rushdie

Why this book:  Selected by my literature reading group at the insistence of one of our members that it would be a mind-bender. She was right! 

Summary in 5 Sentences: This books is like a homeric myth set in the 21st century, with fairies – which Rushdie calls “jinn” – from another dimension of reality breaking through whatever barrier separates their reality from ours,  and coming to earth to enjoy themselves, act out their impulses, anger, fantasies at the expense of hapless and helpless humans – very similar to the gods of Ancient Greece.  The story begins with Dunia, one of the female jinn sneaking through a wormhole between the two worlds, coming to earth, falling in love with a  philosopher in Arab conquered Spain around 1200AD and having a large number of children with him. When the philosopher dies, Dunia returned to Peristan or “Fairlyland” – the other dimension –  but her children and their descendants, a number of whom we get to know in the book, unknowingly carry Dunia’s gene of jinn capabilities.  The book is about the War of the Worlds that the malevolent male leaders of Peristan – the dark Jinn – wage on earth to amuse themselves and carry out their own agendas, while Dunia, also a very powerful jinn seeks to save human civilization from them, battles them on earth, using as her soldiers her descendants, whose genetic but dormant jinn powers she is able to activate with her own power.  As crazy as the story sounds, it is like most myths and fairy tales –  a clever metaphor to expose our own human foibles, to offer us insights from another perspective,  and perhaps enlighten us with new wisdom. 

My Impressions:  Whew!  An interesting book – not my normal fare – but definitely an interesting change.  It is part mythology, part fairy-tale, part social commentary, part morality tale.  It fits into the genre “magical realism” in that the reality rules of the world we live in are warped, and sh!# happens that defy the laws of reality that we have grown up with.  I have described this book to friends as the Homeric world  comes to life in the 21st century with a somewhat different set of  gods.  In this book, the serendipity and capricious gods of Homer’s world descend to wreak havoc in the world we live in.  And we mere humans are at a complete loss as to how to deal with the chaos, death, destruction and tragedy that ensues from their amusement.  I found many interesting moral lessons and messages from Rushdie in the book.

Two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights, amounts to “One thousand and One Nights” the title of a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age.  Rushdie refers throughout the book to obscure but interesting literary, historical, cultural icons from the past. Also he notes that in the middle east, round numbers “are ugly,”  – always add one.  Not 50, but 51; not 200, but 201, not $100, but $99.99, not 1,000, but 1,001.  Here after I will abbreviate “Two years, Eight months, and twenty-eight nights” to “2-8-28.”

Rushdie is writing the book from the perspective of someone who lives 1000 years in the future, looking back and trying to relate what happened in this epic time of what is referred to as “the strangenesses” that occurred when life as we knew it, the expectations and rules, and truths (including the laws of physics) that we had taken for granted, suddenly didn’t work and the world became truly chaotic – in a way that is hard for us to imagine – outside of a very weird Sci-Fi movie.  The “Strangenesses” lasted two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights.  But Rushdi uses this book to share many interesting and larger messages 

In the first chapter Rushdie tells us a lot about this book and the characters and themes in it.  He writes:

This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn, known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt, who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century, as we would say, and of her many descendants, and of her return to the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then to go to war. It is also the tale of many other jinn, male and female, flying and slithering, good, bad, and uninterested in morality; and of the time of crisis, the time-out-of-joint which we call the time of the strangenesses, which lasted for two year, eight months and twenty-eight nights, which is to say one thousand nights and one night more. And yes, we have lived another thousand years since those days, but we are all forever changed by that time. (p 4-5)

I found many similarities between the jinn in Rushdi’s novel and gods of Ancient Greece. They both

  • can have children w humans (though they rarely do) – their progeny are half god, half human (eg Achilles);
  • can change shape and become other creatures at will;
  • have supernatural powers;
  • are quasi immortal – have lived for eons;
  • squabble among themselves and hold grudges and seek to get even;
  • embody the best and worst of human qualities – mostly the worst.

In the first chapter we are introduced to the philosopher Ibn Rushd in the year 1195 in Muslim occupied Spain,  who was silenced because his tolerant philosophy and belief in a kind and loving God were not accepted, and therefore he had to keep quiet or face an inquisition.  He had been unsuccessful arguing against the philosophy of Ghazali, another philosopher who had lived some 80 years before him in Persia, who preached a philosophy of an all-powerful and angry God and that people should live and behave out of fear of God.  Ibn Rushd argued that God was the source of reason and cause and effect, and it was his gift to us that we could learn the laws of the world and physics, adapt and live well.  Ghazali preached that there were no such laws – that there was only one law – what God wills. The apple does not fall from the tree because of gravity, rather only because God wills it. 

It occurs to me that Ibn Rushd represents Rushdie in his argument with fundamentalist Islam, and why he still has a Fatwa against him.  He grew up in a liberal Muslim family in India and later became an avowed atheist.   In the novel, Dunia, the jinn Lightning Princess comes to earth, falls in love with Ibn Rushd bears him many children, but the husband-wife relationship between the older Ibn Rushd and the younger, high energy jinn Dunia is fraught with tension.   Ibn Rushd eventually leaves her, but she remains deeply in love with him even long after he dies, and this love brings her back to earth in the 21st century. Rushdie himself has been married 4 times – and certainly some of his own life experiences show up in this unsuccessful marriage.  

The key protagonist in the novel is Dunia – the jinn Lightning Princess, though we see little of her through much of the novel while we are being introduced to some of the many descendants of her liaison with Ibn Rushd.  The  descendants we get to know are a pretty eclectic group, as one might expect from the descendants some 250 generations past when Dunia and Ibn Rushdi conceived their children and these children became the progeny of these hundreds of descendants.   The 21st century descendants include an avid and professional gardener, a well-to-do ladies man who seeks out affairs with unhappy housewives, a narcissistic woman who preys on wealthy older men,  a teenager who fantasizes about monsters and super-heroes, and uses them to populate  fantasy comic books he writes.  We get to know all these characters and we see how the chaos unleashed by the dark jinn upon their world affects and disrupts their lives – in this, they represent all other humans.  

The dark jinn themselves are selfish, petty and childish, very individualistic, and superficial.   Profound emotions or thoughts do not interest them. They are easily amused, have no concern for the consequences of their actions, no concern for human life, are drawn to shiny objects, thoroughly love sex, but without emotional content or commitment.  Like children, “they live in the moment, have no grand designs, and are easily distracted.” (p137) In this they resemble the gods of Homer’s world. 

The book 2-8-28 culminates in a “War of the Worlds” in which the dark jinn from Peristan  amuse themselves by shaking up the complacency of the humans on earth.  Why?  There had been a debt that one of the most powerful of the dark jinn had to pay to Ghazali the philosopher/theologian who believed in an angry God.  For repayment of that debt, Ghazali demanded that the jinn instill fear in human beings to bring them back to the God he believed in.  He directed that they “Go where man’s pride is swollen, where man believes himself to be godlike, lay waste his arsenals and fleshpots, his temples of technology, knowledge and wealth. Go also to those sentimental locations where it is said that God is love.  Go and show them the truth.”  (p126)  There followed a power struggle in Peristan, between the male “dark jinn” and Dunia the Lightning Princess, and since the dark jinn knew she had a soft spot for humans, they sought to get at her by asserting their will and power over a world they knew she loved. The lives or sufferings of humans meant nothing to them. 

After the dark jinn begin creating chaos and confusion on earth, Dunia comes to earth, introduces herself to her descendants as their jinn ancestor, and recruits them to join her in her fight against the dark jinn to help her restore the status quo ante.  She then activates their dormant jinn powers, and the game is on.

So what chaos did the dark jinn create?  The laws of physics suddenly don’t work, crazy shit just happens – a sea monster comes up out of the water in NYC harbor and swallows a ferry boat whole; people come untethered from the gravity that holds them on earth and they float away;  or gravity becomes so powerful that it crushes some individuals;  some people’s personalities change dramatically and for no apparent reason; some people crave things they never liked before; there are huge senseless tragedies that infect entire cities with fear.  Rushdie must have had fun coming up with some of these wild “strangenesses”.  While I was reading this book, I stepped into our family room and Mary Anne was watching the most recent version of the Godzilla story on Netflix.  In “Godzilla,” huge pre-historic monsters were devastating American cities and creating chaos and panic which to me were very similar to the havoc the dark jinn were wreaking in Rushdie’s book.  

As panic consumed the main population centers where the dark jinn focused their energy, anarchy prevailed as the economy quit functioning, as there was no predictability. People hunkered down and simply tried to survive.  Sounded to me a lot like our response to the pandemic. 

Some of the themes/metaphors that I saw in this book:

  • Two Realities: In 2-8-28 there is a separate reality from the consensual reality we live in. I see this as a metaphor for the possibility (likelihood some say) that there is an unseen world or reality that has more influence on our consensual reality than we realize.  There are a lot of things that happen in our world that are considered bizarre, unexplainable, or miracles which science doesn’t understand and most people dismiss. 
  • Hidden Powers. The descendants of Ibn Rushd and Dunia had powers that they were unaware of and had never realized or developed.   This reminds me of what Eastern mystics say of all of us. In 2-8-28, Dunia herself had to activate these powers in her descendants to help her fight the dark jinn, and when she did, these powers were dramatic and significant, and approached what Eastern practitioners are able to do, and claim that all of us could have these powers with proper training and discipline. 
  • Complacency. Before the War of the Worlds, people were complacent and took for granted simple things like the laws of physics.  In this book people are forced to confront chaos and uncertainty beyond anything we can imagine.  Rushdie’s message (to me) is that we take our orderly and predictable world for granted.  The COVID pandemic was an example of the assumption of continued order and predictability being disrupted.  What might be next?  Alien invasion? Or a nuclear war with Russia or China?
  • Connections.  We are connected through common ancestors with people much different than ourselves. Ibn Rushd’s and Dunia’s descendants were scattered all over the world, 800 years, 200+ generations later. 

In the end, with the assistance of her descendants, Dunia, the more intelligent, compassionate and humanlike of the jinn prevails through cleverness against the clumsy short-sightedness of her rivals. And then there is a (more or less) happy ending, normalcy and peace are restored, and Dunia becomes the main power in Peristan and will ensure that the world of humans and jinn are kept separate.  Rushdie concludes his novel, speaking from a millennium in the future, writing that  “Sometimes we wish for the dreams to return. Sometimes, for we have not wholly rid ourselves of perversity, we long for nightmares.” p.286

This is not a book I’ll recommend to most of my friends.  It was definitely provocative and Rushdie is an eloquent writer. The story does not flow easily; I was best able to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of this  book after concluding it, and then going back and reviewing my underlines.  Only then did it make more sense, and I was better able to appreciate some of the interesting dimensions and hidden messages of this creative story.  

A few interesting quotes from the book: 

“The rich are obscure to us, finding ways to be unhappy when all the normal causes of unhappiness are removed. p 42

At the moment of dying, we are all penniless. p 42

He placed himself in the soil of time and wondered, godlessly, who might be gardening him. p 39

If my enemy is correct Ibn Rushd told her, then his (Ghazali’s) God is a malicious God for whom human life has no value; and I would desire my children’s children to know that, and to know my enmity toward such a God and to follow me in standing against such a God and defeating his purposes. p 59

And after that, she (Dunia) began to love love itself, to love her capacity for love, to love the selflessness of love, the sacrifices, the eroticism, the glee. p 61 

The story parasite entered babies through the ear within hours of their birth and caused the growing children to demand much that was harmful to them: fairy tales, pipe dreams, chimeras, delusions, lies. p 113

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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