If you’ve read any Salman Rushdie previously, you’ll know what you’re letting yourself in for: a tumble of stories, ideas, jokes, allegories and references to books, films, politics, music, art, comic books and contradictory opinions. He specialises in having his cake and eating it and this book is high on the cake-having and eating. And like the best cakes, his books can be sometimes too rich. I’m already hooked: I’ve read all his novels, short stories and most of his non-fiction but I can’t imagine what it must be like coming to him afresh.
Any attempt to summarise this novel sounds ridiculous: a modern-day Arabian Nights story, telling of jinni and humans and a devastating battle between good and evil jinni. The battle itself unfolds in like a comic-book, blockbuster-movie but before that happens Rushdie has unleashed a torrent of other tales and episodes that make more or less sense and fit more or less into the overall story.
Those tales and episodes are tangled together with philosophical argument – from beyond the grave, in the case of Ibn Rushd and Ghazali – and in response to the strange events. The book has much to say about the way humans react to the unknown and to fear and, as a result, much to say about things that matter to us now such as intolerance and terrorism.
The arguments for rationalism jar with the existence of another world of ancient spirits that the characters are required to accept. Actually though, if the novel as a whole argues for any one philosophy over another, if there’s one flag it flies under, it is that of openness, free speech, contradiction and embracing everything and it’s against narrowness and the desire to close discussion down. When the small and narrow apartment belonging to one of the central characters Mr. Geronimo is untouched by flooding, he wonders if the moral is that narrow is good.
Perhaps narrowness survived attacks better than breadth. But that was an unattractive lesson and he didn’t want to learn it. Capaciousness, inclusiveness, everything-at-once-ness, breadth, width, depth, bigness: these were the values to which a tall, long-striding, broad-shouldered man like himself should cleave. And if the world wanted to preserve the narrow and to destroy the expansive, favouring the pinched mouth over wide fleshy lips, the emaciated body over the ample frame, the tight over the loose, the whine over the roar, he would prefer to go down with that big ship.
There are some beautiful passages and startling images as you’d expect but something that’s absent from this novel is Rushdie’s familiar playful language; there’s not much of his trademark punning and twisting of language which is often for entertainment as well as enlightenment. Instead the playfulness is in the power of story: this is a children’s story for adults, a grown-up fairytale. And as the unnamed narrator says,
…to tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present. To recount a fantasy, a story of the imaginary, is also a way of recounting a tale about the actual.