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."
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Count 'em up. That's 1001 nights. Consider this Salman Rushdie's attempt at fan fiction for "1001 Arabian Nights." How does it hold up?
After the jump, my review.
As fan fiction, this is great. Scheherazade and her stories are mentioned. The genies are here and central to the story. Rushdie extends the story while staying true to it. In Rushdie's telling, genies once were common on Earth, but gradually quit traveling between their Fairyland world and ours, until eventually "the slits in the world became overgrown by the unimaginative weeds of convention and the thornbushes of the dully material, until they finally closed up completely and our ancestors were left to do the best they could without the benefits or curses of magic." You can tell Rushdie's sympathies lie with the time of legends (and that the man can write).
Then, eight hundred years ago, one jinnia princess managed to slip through the slits and return to earth, where she fell in love with a philosopher and bore him many children. Skip ahead to our present day, when the cracks open yet again and the jinnia returns. So, too, do other jinn with mischief in mind. So begins the time of "strangenesses."
"In a Romanian village a woman started laying eggs. In a French town the citizenry began turning into rhinoceroses. Old Irish people took to living in trash cans. A Belgian man looked into a mirror and saw the back of his head reflected in it. A Russian official lost his nose and then saw it walking around St. Petersburg by itself." Such absurd scenes make me think of "Alice in Wonderland." Rushdie himself alludes to that story when he describes one character's bravery: "When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, it was an accident, but when she stepped through the looking glass, it was of her own free will, and a braver deed by far."
But the "strangenesses" turn gradually dark. Mischief turns to evil. A full-blown War of the Worlds breaks out. "Alice in Wonderland" morphs into some dark story out of the Marvel comic book universe. In non-fiction comparisons, Rushdie compares the war to the "later stages of the rule of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in India." Rushdie identifies one of the home bases of the genies as a country that sounds a lot like Afghanistan. Combined with the jinn's atrocities, the war can be a metaphor for the Taliban or ISIS. The two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights of the war make up the bulk of the novel. How it turns out I won't reveal, but I will say the novel is written from the viewpoint of a thousand years from now, when humans have lost their religious faith and the ability to dream.
I'm sure a movie version of this novel could fill itself with CGI special effects. It might tempt someone to make an animated version. But that would short change Rushdie's novel. It's much more than that. There's philosophy here. And psychology. And theology. In Rushdie's telling, "the battle against the jinn was a portrait of the battle within the human heart." Rushdie makes us consider good and evil, competing philosophies of religion, love, faith, and what it means to be human. All layered on top of an exciting cartoon war with genies.