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The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

July 31, 2016
Salman Rushdie at the Hay Festival (Andrew Lih, cc licence)

Salman Rushdie at the Hay Festival (Andrew Lih, cc licence)

Post 10 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festival, plus a review of Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

“I’m sick of my novels coming true,” Salman Rushdie remarked during his session at the Hay Festival. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights features a jinn army swarming across the world, killing and destroying. He finished the book before the rise of ISIS.

The title references Scheherazade (1001 nights), and the novel feels like it has 1001 stories, on top of the pulsing drive of the central narrative. It’s exuberant, boisterous, over the top, and a lot of fun.

The slits between our world and the upper world crack open and Earth is invaded by jinn, the spirits of Islamic mythology, who create havoc. Dunia, a jinnia princess who loves humanity, tracks down the descendants of the numerous children she bore to a human philosopher 800 years ago, and enlists them to fight the dark jinni. The action is framed by the debate between two ghosts: Dunia’s philosopher lover, who advocates secularism, and a fundamentalist theologian who uses the dark jinn to create fear, so that people will return to God.

Most of the action is set in the present, but the narrator lives 1000 years in the future, looking back on this epoch-making “War of the Worlds”.

RushdieRushdie says that in recent times we have experienced a “colossal fragmentation of reality … we live in a time when we don’t understand the narrative – we don’t know how things work.” Climate change, financial crises, terrorism and enormous change at great speed leave people anchorless. In the novel the “strangenesses” that happen as the jinn invade Earth are a representation of this upheaval.

Similarly, the dark jinn symbolise the darkness in “every human heart”, and the War of the Worlds represents our own struggles. The novel is about the folly that follows the separation of reason and imagination, he said at Hay. Just in case we miss this, he spells it out several times in the novel, and includes as the frontispiece Goya’s The sleep of reason brings forth monsters, together with the caption to the etching:

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

Some reviewers have criticised this “telling as well as showing”, and complained about Rushdie’s other sins against the rules of writing. While such clunky bits would usually put me off, I didn’t mind them here – Rushdie writes such magnetic prose and tells such good stories that he can get away with it.

The novel has been described as fantasy, science fiction, fairy tale and magic realism. None of these labels fits it exactly – it is all of them and more. At Hay, Rushdie said: “The problem with the term ‘magic realism’ is that people only hear the word ‘magic’, whereas the best magic realism is deeply rooted in reality. We don’t have to write something naturalistic to write about the real world. Van Gogh’s Starry Night doesn’t look like a starry night, but it’s still a great picture.”

Goya: The sleep of reason brings forth monsters

During the 1960s and 1970s I was a science fiction fanatic, so I was delighted when Rushdie admitted to a similar passion and listed the authors I had also read, such as Van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp and Pohl and Kornbluth. SF is a fine genre for novels of ideas, he said, but most of the SF at that time was written by men and did not have good female characters. So he was grateful, as I was, to discover the superb books of Ursula Le Guin, inhabited by real women.

Ursula Le Guin recently reviewed Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights for the Guardian. She loved the book, but she did have a problem with Dunia – she thinks like a man: “like so many other kick-ass, weapon-wielding warrior women – she’s a man in drag.”

My own thought about Dunia is that she has strong character but little personality. I reacted emotionally to most of the humans and jinni in the book because they have distinctive personalities. Dunia seems more like a symbol, except when she’s annoyed by the equivalent of the sat nav on her magic carpet when it takes her to the wrong destination. We should have had more moments like that.

Spoiler Alert!

With the separation of reason and imagination as the theme, Rushdie said at Hay, you couldn’t have a happy ending. So when he finished the book and found he had written a “happyish” ending, he purposely messed it up. This mutilated ending, according to Le Guin, “neglects the possibility of more imaginative uses of both the light and the darkness in us.” I agree with her. The twist at the end feels forced, a cop-out to the clichéd idea that destruction is more interesting than creation.

Nevertheless Le Guin recommends the novel, and believes that many readers will “take delight in its generosity of spirit.” And so do I, with the caveat that if you’re uncomfortable with allegory, or with creatures made from fire and smoke, it may not be the book for you.

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