Salman Rushdie writes a grown-up fairy tale

Now that this fatwa business has calmed down, novelist Salman Rushdie seems to be having a good time.

Exhibit A would be his exuberant, Scheherazade-inspired “Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” a fairy-tale romp with jinns and jinnis, magic, warfare and plenty of sex.

Rushdie will speak about the new novel Thursday at the Carter Center, as part of a tour that takes him up and down both U.S. coasts and to England and Germany. What he’s likely to say is that he hasn’t had as much fun since writing “Luka and the Fire of Life,” from 2010.

The two novels have much in common — pop culture references, a fanciful cast of characters and wild plotting. What sets “Two Years” apart is the serious intent within the comedy. The book is a plea for coherence in the face of insanity.

Born in Mumbai (then called Bombay), Rushdie came to prominence in 1988 when his fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses,” was deemed blasphemous by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. With a mullah-imposed death sentence on his head, Rushdie went into hiding. The tension since has eased, and Rushdie has termed the fatwa more rhetoric than threat.

He was, from 2007 to 2012, a distinguished writer in residence at Emory University. Emory is also the repository of Rushdie’s papers, and though his contract with the school has ended, he hopes to maintain an informal connection. He has returned to Atlanta often, and arranged for the 2013 premiere of the movie version of his novel “Midnight’s Children” to take place here.

He spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the day after his book was launched at a party in (to his chagrin) in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Rushdie, 68, complained mildly that the center of the arts in the Empire State apparently is no longer in Manhattan, and that he doesn’t really fit in with the Williamsburg crowd.

“I don’t have the right beard.”

Among the things he discussed with the AJC …

How “Two Years” is reminiscent of his two children’s books:

I had so much pleasure writing those books for my sons, probably the most fun I’ve had writing books. … I thought, why don’t I try to do that for adults, using that same manner, that same fable kind of writing, (using) this mock scholarly voice from (a thousand years in) the future, allegedly talking about ancient history? Which happens to be us.

How the battle between “dark” and “light” jinns and jinnis in “Two Years” serves as a commentary on the crisis in Syria and elsewhere.

I’ve always seen myself as a writer of my present time. I try and live in the moment I’m living in, and tell stories out of that time. And one of the great facts about our time is this terrible conflict between reason and unreason, between the rational and the irrational, between civility and brutality.

Why his combatants travel in flying pots, move through wormholes between Fairyland and Earth, and dispense lightning bolts with their hands:

I don’t want to just do what the news does better. … That realistic narrative is unfolding on television every day. I wanted to reach for something below that, beneath that.

On his optimistic prediction that, in the future, these conflicts will be resolved:

It’s not that optimistic. It’s going to take us a thousand years to reach that level of civility.

Why two of his characters, a pair of philosophers whose bones have turned to dust, continue their debate, even in the grave:

Once I got them going with their arguing, I thought, ‘This is too valuable to give up. I’ve got to find a way for them to continue, even though they’ve been dead for 900 years.’

On argument as the hallmark of the free world:

Argument itself could be redefined as democracy. The ability to have an argument is one way of describing an open society. An open society is one that is always arguing with itself.

On the downbeat note sounded in the last chapter, 1,000 years in the future:

I’m deliberately spoiling my own happy ending. A simple happy ending is kind of sappy. I just wanted to throw some vinegar in there.

On one of his favorite souvenirs from a tour of the hometowns of Georgia writers:

I had my photograph taken with Br’er Rabbit. He has a statue on the lawn outside the courthouse in Eatonton.


Salman Rushdie spoke at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, Sept. 17, 2015.