“It’s a terrible thing when one speaks metaphorically and the metaphor turns into a literal truth.” So writes Rushdie (Joseph Anton: A Memoir, 2012, etc.) in one of his very best books, one whose governing metaphor can be about many terrible truths indeed.
Do the math, and Rushdie’s title turns into a different way of counting up to 1,001 nights. Small wonder that the first characters we encounter are an exceedingly wise philosopher named, thinly, Ibn Rushd, “the translator of Aristotle,” and an exceedingly beguiling supernatural being in the form of a girl of about 16 who harbors numerous secrets, not just that she’s Jewish in a place overrun with Islamic fundamentalists (and where it’s thus best to live as “Jews who could not say they were Jews”), but that she is, in fact, one of the jiniri, “shadow-women made of fireless smoke.” Got all that? In the span of, yes, 1,001 nights, Dunia gives birth to three broods of children who, being jinn, can do all sorts of cool things, such as fly about on magic carpets or slither hither and yon like snakes. Dunia is studiously irreligious, which is perhaps more dangerous than being Jewish, inclined to say of Ibn Rushd’s explanations of all the wonderful things God can do, “That’s stupid.” Her endless children are inclined to favor the secular over the divine as well, a complicating factor when the dimensions turn all inside out and the jinn, now in our time, are called on to battle the forces of evil that have been hiding on the other side of the metaphorical wall between—well, civilizations, maybe. Rushdie turns in a sometimes archly elegant, sometimes slightly goofy fairy tale—with a character named Bento V. Elfenbein, how could it be entirely serious?—for grown-ups: “A fairy king,” he writes, and he knows whereof he speaks, “can only be poisoned by the most dreadful and powerful of words.”
Beguiling and astonishing, wonderful and wondrous. Rushdie at his best.