Rushdie’s thirteenth novel offers a delectable update of One Thousand and One Nights.
The jinn, Rushdie tells us, are “creatures made of smokeless fire,” shape-shifters infused with powers that defy our experience of gravity and time. They live in their own world, yet they can’t resist meddling in our affairs. But the Lightning Princess is different. For all her fearsome “mastery over the thunderbolt,” she falls in love with a mortal in the twelfth century, a Spanish Arab philosopher whose books, the most famous of which is The Incoherence of the Incoherence, are banned and burned because he argues for rationalism instead of religious fundamentalism. This “man of reason” is Ibn Rushd, the very thinker Rushdie’s father honored when he invented a new, more modern family. Now this historic figure serves as the guiding light for his namesake’s latest rambunctious, satirical, and bewitching metaphysical fable, perhaps his most thoroughly enjoyable to date.
At once a scholar, rigorous observer, and lavishly imaginative novelist, Rushdie channels his well-informed despair over the brutality and absurdity of human life into works of fantasy, where the dream of righteous justice and transcendent liberty can flourish. His thirteenth work of fiction begins with the fateful liaison between the lovely jinn and the old philosopher, which, thanks to Dunia’s supernatural fertility, produces the first generation of an undetected tribe of descendants who look and feel human but who lack earlobes and possess secret jinn powers. Rushdie leaps forward 1,000 years from now, when future chroniclers look back to our fraught, accelerating epoch to tell a tale of “the time of strangenesses, which lasted for two years, eight months and twenty-eight days, which is to say, one thousand nights and one night more.” With this enchanting declaration, Rushdie adds a new link to the long narrative chain that connects us to that most marvelous and life-saving of storytellers, Scheherazade, who risked her life to put an end to a king’s murderous rampage by telling him 1,001 beguiling tales.
Brave and brilliant Scheherazade has inspired countless writers through the ages. Rushdie acknowledged his debt in earlier works, including The Moor’s Last Sigh (1996), and homage is also found in Naguib Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights and Days (1995), Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow (2010), Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati (2008), Nelida Pinon’s Voices of the Desert (2009), and John Barth’s Chimera (1972) and The Book of Ten Nights and a Night (2004), which takes place directly after September 11, 2001.
Philosophy, like religion, can be dangerous.
The long spell of “strangenesses” is precipitated by an apocalyptic storm that devastates New York City. In its aftermath, a hardworking gardener, an earlobe-less “Indian from India” known as Mr. Geronimo, finds that his feet “no longer touched the ground.” Meanwhile, in Queens, a wormhole opens between the worlds of the jinn and humans in the bedroom of Jimmy Kapoor, a young wannabe graphic novelist. Many more manifestations of the wondrous, weird, and inexplicable occur as a war of the worlds begins, stoked from beyond by none other than Ibn Rushd, still loved by Dunia, and his real-life archrival, the religious thinker Ghazali, who, in Rushdie’s fabulist scenario, is aligned with the most terrifying jinn of them all. Philosophy, like religion, can be dangerous.
Rushdie is having wickedly wise fun here. Every character has a keenly hilarious backstory, and the action (flying carpets and urns, gigantic attacking serpents, lightning strikes, to-the-death combat, sex) surges from drastic and pulse-raising to exuberantly madcap, magical, and genuinely emotional. Rushdie scatters intriguing allusions (Beckett, Magritte, Gogol, Obama) about like fairy dust and coins of the realm while sustaining swiftly flowing, incisive, piercingly funny commentary on everything from religious extremists to reality TV, anti-Semitism and racism, and economic injustice. Rushdie muses over kismet and our perpetual bewilderment about the harsh realities of life, made worse by war and global warming. He even offers a wry glimpse into the future to conclude this fantastically inventive, spirited, astute, and delectable update of One Thousand and One Nights.
This review was first published in the July 2015 issue of Booklist.