Salman Rushdie's latest is a “rummage around scepticism and superstition”

Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights and A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk.

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The novel of ideas has been dealt a series of knocks since the days of high modernism, when writers such as Thomas Mann accommodated the latest styles of thought to the great-hearted humanism bequeathed by the 19th century. At some point in the late 1950s, ideas and literary humanism started to go their separate ways. Ideas, once the lifeblood of civilised discourse, became synonymous with despotism and corduroy. Literature, meanwhile, became the realm of instinct. The novel of ideas was however pegged as staid and dogmatic, unliterary, even anti-literary, and its vestigial forms display a corresponding tameness. Instead of interrogation and rumination, we are served either a dramatised dilemma – say, a zoologist falls for a cleric – or else a sort of intellectual flotsam: ancient myth, modern philosophy, popular culture and off-trail history, organised around a cluster of connotations and keywords.

If the dramatised dilemma, as practised by novelists such as Ian McEwan and Richard Powers, represents a dilution of the novel of ideas, the flotsam novel is more like a rival or usurper: Vladimir Nabokov railed against “great ideas” and “general ideas” and called Thomas Mann a plaster saint. In Ada (1969), a vast fantasy set in the mythical Antiterra, Nabokov composed a novel of ideas for people who don’t like novels of ideas. He was a healthy, high-spirited man, free, as John Updike once wrote, from the “neurasthenic infirmities” suffered by Mann and others.

Nabokov viewed the novelist of ideas, like his loathsome cousin the psychoanalyst, as a specialist in debunking, a spoilsport wielder of angst, fear and guilt. He had no desire to anatomise a nation’s soul, or to bring the repressed material of his mental life to conscious recognition. He wanted to keep history out of sight, and for repressed material to remain repressed, the better to enchant, delight and amuse. Ada was packed not with intellectual gristle but with what he called “straw and fluff”.

The flotsam novel is more deflective and ironic than the conventional novel of ideas. But it is also more mechanistic. That is because it relies on the keyword, which functions not as a starting point, a spur to invention, but as a mark to be hit, an end in itself. The novelist Tom McCarthy, a fan of Ada, rightly describes his own flotsam-heavy novels in terms of what they are “all about”: not a bored office worker, but “pollution and mutation”. Under this keyword tyranny, characters are often slaves. So is the reader, being invited not to respond or question, to connect or synthesise, only to note the recurrence of similar images and details.

And so is the fictional world, required as it is to generate all those images and details. That is why these novels are so exhaustively researched, as is the case with McCarthy, or extensively invented, as is the case with Nabokov and Salman Rushdie, the demented mayor of Flotsamia, whose new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, offers a rummage around scepticism and superstition in the form of a historical record of the legendary “time of the strangenesses”, which took place right about now. (In interviews, Rushdie has mentioned a potential science-fiction project called “Parallelville”.) For a thousand and one nights – the length of time that corresponds to the title – the human race was besieged by a series of natural disasters and supernatural eruptions, visited on the human world by the neighbouring spirit-world, which, like a supernatural Isis or al-Qaeda, seeks to bring unreason into human affairs. The likely saviours of mankind are the distant offspring of an affair between Averroës, the rationalist who was the Arabic interpreter of Aristotle, and Dunia, a female member of the jinn, creatures lacking earlobes and “made of smokeless fire”.

In developing his arcane mythology and kitting out his parallel present, Rushdie crowds the novel with reference points. Lewis, meet Franz: “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 . . . So it was with Jimmy K.” We meet versions of Jerry Falwell (ignorant bigot) and Barack Obama (man of reason but with a taste for empty rhetoric). Although the narrator speaks to us from the next millennium, he is familiar with Stan Laurel, Bernardo Bertolucci and the sorcerer from Disney’s Fantasia.

One precedent for this style is the recent novels of Thomas Pynchon. Nabokov is another. In the words of John Updike, writing in 2005 and 1969, respectively, Rushdie’s prose “hops with . . . compulsive puns, learned allusions, winks at the reader”, much as Ada menaced the “cowering reader” with “bristling erudition, garlicky puns . . . and ogreish winks”.

In his allusive fervour, Rushdie frequently violates consistency. From Magritte, he borrows the image of a man who looks in the mirror and finds a reflection of the back of his head. Rushdie wants to tickle readers with his impudence and erudition, so the art undergoes a transfer of ownership from Magritte to Rushdie’s world. Yet elsewhere Magritte is a name known within the world of the book. The artist rematerialises when Rushdie wants to do some mock exegesis – a “shrewd curator” realises that the men in Golconda are rising rather than falling – and when he needs a bit of help with a pen portrait: “If René Magritte had painted Stan Laurel in shades of light brown the result might have resembled Mr Airagaira . . .” The only rules in this fairy tale are the ones Rushdie devised, and he can’t even stick to them.

Beneath the frenzy, tidy patterns form. Virtually everything that takes place is an example of mutation, a theme capable of taking varied forms. With suitable vagueness, Rushdie refers to “the endless metamorphosis of human lives, human relations and human societies”. According to the novel, metamorphoses can be for good or ill. The good kind of metamorphosis, such as the immigrant’s ability to adapt, is allied to other positive virtues: “reason, tolerance, magnanimity, knowledge and restraint”, “peace, prosperity, tolerance, understanding, wisdom, goodness and truth”.

The novel’s good v evil plotlines, its references to philosophical quarrels between freethinkers and religious dogmatists, the parallels with the fatwa and the attacks on the World Trade Center leave little room for debate and grey areas. But that doesn’t seem to worry Rushdie. Two Years is addressed to readers for whom rationalism means the same thing it does for him. A tribute to scepticism, it invites only nodding. At one point, a “positive thinker”, introduced for our ridicule (we can tell from her paraphrased views on evolution, the afterlife and Jews), is said to believe that “anger made you sick”. Yet it’s a contention that any number of doctors would accept. It is not the same as saying that the strangenesses are a punishment for human decadence, to take a connection mocked elsewhere in the book.

Genre trappings aside, Two Years is a very familiar Rushdie novel, in the mould fixed more than 25 years ago by his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. In his memoir Joseph Anton, he lamented that after the fatwa, critical appraisal of his work was overwhelmed by “the cacophony of other discourses”. In reality, that cacophony spared his reputation for a decade. When it died down, a different, less flattering music took its place. In 1999 The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a novel that fused Ovid with rock music, prompted a takedown in the New York Review of Books by the novelist Tim Parks, who diagnosed what he called the “Rushdie aesthetic”: noisy lists, New Age undertones. Parks’s argument, executed over several thousand words, prompted James Wood, the most influential reviewer of new fiction, to write about the book a second time. Rhapsody turned to moans. “An exile’s sigh for home” became “Lost in the punhouse”.

In Joseph Anton, Rushdie referred to Wood contradicting himself “according to the literary predilections of his paymasters”. In truth, Wood had been alerted to the literary shortcomings of a sensibility too often read through a political prism. Rushdie was transformed from political cause to fallible writer, from poster boy to whipping boy. The
Ground Beneath Her Feet
became Exhibit A in Wood’s polemic against “hysterical realism”. It loomed in the background of Parks’s campaign against world literature, which started in 2010 with the blog post “The dull new global novel” and culminated last year in a book, Where I’m Reading From.

Wood complained that hysterical realism was “almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish”; Parks worried that the global novel, in pursuing an idea of the universal, ignored “the subtle nuances” of language and culture. But although Wood and Parks were coming from different directions their priorities overlapped. Fiction, they agree, should be tragic, sceptical, sober, metaphysical yet absorbed by a particular time and place. Shared exemplars include Austen, Chekhov, Lawrence, Woolf, Coetzee, Henry Green. And their common enemy is Salman Rushdie.

But there’s a red-herring component to combating what Rushdie embodies or manifests. Even if you believe that fiction should be cartoonish, universalising, fantastical, idealistic, Two Years would be unlikely to appeal. By any criteria, it is a clumsy, shrill and complacent piece of work.

 

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In Where I’m Reading From, Tim Parks refers to “a Rushdie, a Pamuk” and “a Rushdie or a Pamuk”, as if the two writers were, if not indistinguishable, representatives of the same impulse or movement or malaise. An arid internationalism. The globalisation of the novel. In Rushdie’s case, it was shown in the desire to construct allegories stuffed with transhistorical and universal concepts. With Pamuk, it was something smaller. Parks said that although Pamuk’s fiction offers “a strong sense of place . . . it is one increasingly addressed to those outside Turkey”. His portrayal of Istanbul may be a natural emanation of his feeling for the city. Nevertheless it is tourism.

It seems a gripe too far. Rushdie creates his universal narratives by retreating from bounded reality. Pamuk may not be writing about Turkey exclusively for his own countrymen, taking knowledge of districts and cafés for granted. Early in A Strangeness in My Mind, Pamuk’s narrator, a tour guide of a kind, admits he is explaining things for “foreign readers”. But he is also explaining for “future generations of Turkish readers”. Pamuk retains decent access to all the things – seriousness, intellectual engagement, cultural nuances, a tragic sense – that Rushdie forsakes. And although the 1999 essay collection Other Colours demonstrates that he has various interests in common with Rushdie – Ada, Tristram Shandy, Arabian Nights – they provide the backing for something altogether more grounded. Novels such as Snow, The Museum of Innocence and now A Strangeness in My Mind are far closer to Rushdie’s magnificent post-colonial novels Midnight’s Children, about India in the decades after Partition, and Shame, about Pakistan under Bhutto and Zia, than the later rummages around newness, mutation, tolerance.

Not all attempts to include the foreign and future reader require a special effort. Even within a culture, knowledge is partial. In a plausible early scene, the novel’s happy-go-lucky hero, Mevlut Karatas, on being teased for selling the traditional winter drink boza, a relic of the Ottoman empire, tells his customers that boza owes its continued life to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s great moderniser. Even though street vendors were not much seen in Europe – Atatürk’s reference point for ideal manners in republican Turkey – he didn’t care: they remained the “life and soul of Istanbul”.

If Pamuk falters, it is not in his conception of the novel, or his compromised relationship with his native city, but in matters of craft, method, basic accounting. The subtitle of A Strangeness in My Mind reads, in part: Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas . . . and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012. That “and also”, with its hint of afterthought, is a giveaway. For long stretches of this very unconcise novel, foreground and backdrop have no relationship at all. Mevlut’s fortunes rarely spring from collective upheavals. He is a rare abstainer from the political sectarianism of the 1970s in which his best friend, Ferhat, and his cousin Suleyman take opposing sides. When he loses things that are dear to him, it is not through events at the national level (nor, bizarrely, through his own carelessness or complacency).

Now and again, Pamuk attempts to remedy the disjuncture, with limited success. At one point we are told that Mevlut started writing love letters to his future wife in the month that “the famous Milliyet columnist Celâl Salik was shot dead on the street”, an event predicted by the local “dishwasher boys”, who felt “emboldened by their prescience” to help Pamuk’s hero with his letter-writing. Public, meet Private. Or not.

But even if Mevlut, being at odds with the novel’s design, is an eccentric choice of lead character, Pamuk fulfils his promise of social context thanks to a large supporting cast. Mevlut seems to be the only citizen of Istanbul denied powers of narration; everybody else is at it. At times, the narrative recalls a relay race stretched to marathon length. But it is in the overlapping trajectories of Ferhat and Suleyman, and of the three Efendi sisters, that the novel shakes off its sloth and mildness and achieves more desirable qualities: gravitas, energy, insight, humour. Mevlut may be a blank, but he is a well-connected blank.

Along the way, Pamuk invokes themes of a universal, Rushdie-like kind – the conflict between past and future, decadence and obedience – but these are not roughly imposed. Just as Mann’s novels The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus were rooted in descriptions of German experience, so Pamuk’s thoughts on the paradoxes of modernisation derive from a portrait of Istanbul over fifty years heaving with observations about everything from the capriciousness of land law and the inconsistency of public water fountains to the hazardous effect on yoghurt-selling of “the glass bowls that came out in the Sixties” and the benefits of the government’s privatisation of electricity for young men with a strong work ethic. At one point, he takes mischievous delight in telling us that the 9/11 attacks, though registered by his Muslim characters, were “never mentioned . . . again”.

When Nabokov wrote Ada, he was trying to align his taste for what he called the “invented habitus” with his hatred of “general” ideas – his disdain for po-faced realism with his love of intellectual puzzles. But he ended up writing a book about time instead, just as Rushdie has ended up writing a book concerned in the broadest way with reason. It is the soil of an Antiterra, or Parallelville, that produces ideas of a general nature. The soil of Istanbul produces ideas about Istanbul. 

“Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” by Salman Rushdie is published by Jonathan Cape, 280pp, £18.99. “A Strangeness in My Mind” by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Ekin Oklap, is published by Faber & Faber, 599pp, £20

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles