SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Salman Rushdie has a new novel. "Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights" seems to transpose Arabian Nights of long ago into a modern-day New York City, which gets overturned by thunderstorm that upsets the law of the universe with myth and magic. The jinn have come back after an 800-year exile and create a world in which a down-to-earth man, a gardener, in fact, walks on air, a spurned wife shoots lightning from her fingertips, and a graphic novelist's characters turn to flesh. The world is in the grip of a long-term struggle between fear-instilled superstition and unmagical reason.
"Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights" is Salman Rushdie's first novel for adults in seven years. And Salman Rushdie, who was knighted in 2007 and has won the Booker Prize and written dozens of best-selling books, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Thank you. Yeah, not dozens, but a dozen, anyway (laughter).
SIMON: All right, well, I try and err on the side of graciousness.
RUSHDIE: Thanks for the magic realism.
SIMON: (Laughter) Which nicely brings up, so who are these jinn?
RUSHDIE: They are, in the ordinary English word, genies, but I've gone rather more deeply into their nature. They're kind of dark, mischievous, supernatural beings who are really interested in human life because it seems to me, in the end, more interesting and varied and diverse than their own lives. But it's their nature to screw things up, and so they show up to do that.
SIMON: The story actually begins eight - I would guess eight centuries ago with a 12th century philosopher named - I hope I pronounce this correctly - Ibn Rushd...
SIMON: ...Who was a real person.
RUSHDIE: A real person known in the West as Averroes. He's a great Aristotelian philosopher in Arab Spain. And the person after whom my father changed our family name. He admired him so much that he changed the name to Rushdie to reflect his admiration for Ibn Rushd.
SIMON: Could we fairly call him, by today's standards, a reform Muslim?
RUSHDIE: Yes, I mean, he was somebody who was one of the people who believed that you should incorporate principles of reason and logic and science, broadmindedness, into the world of religion. And he had adversaries, you know, as people still do.
SIMON: So, forgive me, but when there was the fatwa placed on your head, they (laughter) got the right name, didn't they.
RUSHDIE: I'm afraid they did get the right - because, in fact, one of the things that happened to him eight-and-a-half centuries ago, is that he fell foul of the religious fanatics of his time. He was a very eminent man in Cordoba, which was the capital of Arab Spain. He was the court physician to the Sultan and a famous philosopher. But he fell foul of the then-fanatics and was actually thrown out of his job and exiled, and he had his books burned. So there are things we have in common beyond the name.
SIMON: Ibn Rushd believes that - I think the phrase is - murderous ignoramuses are taking over the world, people who just want to forbid things.
RUSHDIE: Well, I think we live in a kind of strange world, don't we, in which that's becoming all too common. I mean, I think this is a kind of wild fantasy, but I think one of the things about wild fantasy is that if it's going to have any real meaning to readers, it's got to be, in fact, about reality, you know. And I think this book, which is about crazy stuff, you know, it's about jinns turning into monsters and surging up from the depths of New York Harbor to eat the Staten Island ferry. So it's not exactly what you'd call a naturalistic novel. But at the heart of it is a desire to create a kind of vision arising out of what we see happening all around us in the world.
SIMON: May I ask, do you move around pretty freely now?
RUSHDIE: Oh, yeah, no, no, it's been good. I think it's got to the point where you have to stop asking me (laughter) because it's been, like, 16 years since it's been OK.
SIMON: I ask because this is a novel that, I suppose, could upset some people.
RUSHDIE: Oh, and everything I write upsets somebody. You know, upsetting people, it's an age in which everyone is upset all the time.
RUSHDIE: You know, all you have to do is look at the Internet. It's full of people screaming at other people for saying things they don't like. So I think, you know, we have to just turn that sound off and turn away from that unpleasant noise and just get on with doing what we do. You know, I think this is a funny book. I mean, a sense of humor is a useful tool when reading my work.
SIMON: The jinn are a randy bunch, aren't they?
RUSHDIE: Yes, I'm afraid this is my fault. In the literature of the jinn, there's a little of it, but there isn't a whole lot. I just decided that they needed one characteristic which was very exaggerated and kind of funny. And so I made them have sex all the time, just all the time, inexhaustibly, forever. I've always been a little shy of writing about sex. You know, if you look at my work, most of the acts of love are offstage. You know, they're not described in kind of lubricious detail. This time, I thought, well, the way to write about sex is to treat it as comical and absurd and write about it as comedy. And so, yeah, the jinn do have sex all the time, but it's ridiculous sex. And one of the reasons why they like coming down here where we all are is that we have much more interesting lives because we do things other than have sex. So here you have this malevolent force that is in love with human beings but its nature as to create trouble. And one of the things that happens in the book is that there are actually - the main female jinn character actually falls in love with human beings and becomes their defender and champion against, if you like, against her own kind.
SIMON: Not to give anything away, but towards the end of this novel, reason rules the land.
RUSHDIE: Well, you know, one of the things that the book is about is about a kind of conflict between reason and unreason. And I didn't want it to the simple good-bad opposition because that's boring, you know, and two-dimensional. So even that moment when what I would consider to be a good outcome, which is at a world of tolerance and good sense and reason and moderation etcetera, comes into being, there's also things wrong with that. I mean, for example, it's quite dull.
SIMON: You say - well, I mean, I think - I love this phrase so much. You say this is the price we pay for peace, prosperity, tolerance, understanding
RUSHDIE: Yeah, no such thing as a free lunch.
SIMON: It reminded me - you must, of course, know that - Oscar Wilde is it - in "The Picture Of Dorian Gray," brute reason can be quite unbearable.
RUSHDIE: Yes, the book has a frontispiece, which is a famous picture by Goya, the sleep of reason brings forth monsters. And the interesting thing about - that he says, Goya, as a caption to that picture, is that what he means to say is that when reason and imagination are separated, then fancy can bring forth evils, but when they are united, then wonderful things can follow from that. And I think that's, if you like a definition of what gets called magic realism, that you need both things. You need the ability to dream and you need the ability to think.
SIMON: Salman Rushdie, his new novel, "Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights." Thanks so much for being with us.
RUSHDIE: Thank you.
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