On the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie

Dear friend, can I borrow you for a few moments to geek out about the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie? I just finished reading “Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights” and I am in awe of his mastery. In this version of 1001 nights, the barrier between the land of the jinn and our twenty-first century world collapses, and the dark jinn invade our world, causing havoc. But this is also the story of a battle between two philosophers—Ghazali, who believes that God is supreme, and Ibn Rushd, who tries to reconcile faith and reason. And yet, this is also a story of not-belonging, or of longing for a home or a love that no longer has a place for one. Only Rushdie can so perfectly fold these stories into each other: the novel unravels revealing stories within stories, a loss here balanced by a victory there, each new revelation sliding into place perfectly, and then, when he is finally finished, voila! there it stands, the most beautiful creation, balancing perfectly on the finest point. There’s a great pleasure in reading a book crafted by a master that opens up like Russian nesting dolls—every subsequent layer is equally beautiful, and each encloses the next just so, so you never quite forget where you began, though you may forget how you got here. Even now, I find myself grasping for the names of characters, elaborate back stories fading into the mist—when the air is filled with lightning and there is a jinn in a flying urn threating to destroy the world, does it really matter whose uncle left whom a fortune?

I’m rarely disappointed that a book has ended, wishing that it could go on just a little longer. I’m afraid I rather lack in sentimentality that way or perhaps, more often, I begin another before this one ends, and segue into another world without even realising it. This book with the cumbersome name is one of the rare exceptions—I briefly contemplated reading it all over again, from start to finish, after I had turned the last page. Surely there would be many clever turns of phrase, little bits of foreshadowing, intricacies of plot, that I would have missed in my first reading. Everything about this book is so well thought-out, that one cannot help but feel that one has missed out on at least a dozen important details—secret jokes, life-changing revelations, an important plot point. But more importantly, I would read this book again simply because it is so effortlessly entertaining. There are jinnis, and magic, and love, and worlds to save. The book is written like a cartoon that I loved watching on Saturday afternoons—all bright colours and funny songs and deliciously frightening villains.

I have always been a fan of “neatness” in writing, to borrow a friend’s term. All the loose ends tie together perfectly, every character serves a very particular purpose and, do I dare say it, there’s not a word out of place. There is pathos to balance the ribald humour, and enough sneaky remarks about those with the inclination to proclaim bans to make it seem like there is some deep social commentary worth plumbing in its depths. The book is written with a casual academic tone that I can only describe as anthropologist-amongst-friends. Part documentary voiceover and part street-corner storyteller, only Rushdie can find the perfect tone for a story like this—distanced enough to add amusing asides, close enough for the drama to evoke compassion, grand enough to evoke a legendary sense of scale. And only Rushdie can write lyrical prose that is so unobtrusive that its moments of beauty catch you by surprise. This is not dense, erudite prose that will have you reaching for a dictionary every second sentence, that announces itself with fanfare and elephants, but it’s an easy flowing prose, laughing yet sincere, weaving together images that do not need big words to explain the memories and emotions they trigger.

But perhaps what I love most about this book is that it has forever and always fixed in my mind what a jinn is. There are very few fantasy writers across the ages who so shape our collective imagination that they lay down the codex for a fantastical creature—for the way it looks, behaves, feels. The rest have to make do with the sandbox the greats have created. And in this book, Rushdie defines what a jinn is. They are impulsive, flaky, sexual, greedy, playful, amoral. I can close my eyes and imagine a Grand Ifrit, streaking across a red sky in his flying urn, and with his long black beard flowing out behind him. I doubt I will be able to find a more convincing portrait.

And perhaps that’s what makes Rushdie such a convincing storyteller. He can envision an alternate world with such clarity that he is able to bring it to life for others, so that we may see it through his eyes. And then he uses this talent to not make a point exactly, but to entertain. Rushdie paints with the broadest of brushstrokes in this book, pitting love and reason against maliciousness and fanaticism, but the argument is made not so much through anything the characters do, but through the act of storytelling itself. Like the legendary 1001 Nights, the stories provoke laughter and compassion and memory of a longing so that we remember why life is worth living, so that we have reason to push away death one night further. There is no point to the story than the story itself, and for Rushdie, that is enough.

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