Wars Between Supernatural Powers
I have a confession – Salman Rushdie’s latest book is the first of his I have read. It’s not that he’s not worth reading – it’s just that other reviewers have always clamored for his work – he is one of the great writers of the 20th century, so I never had any trouble delegating that delightful task.
It appears that Salman Rushdie was born to be a writer. He was raised in a Muslim family in India in relatively affluent circumstances, and wound up at Cambridge. He had one job – as an ad copywriter – before his published his firsts novel in his early 20s. His SECOND novel, Midnight’s Children, won the Man Booker Prize! That’s the most prestigious prize in English literature – not bad for a second novel.
Of course, Rushdie is most famous for the years in which he ran afoul of fundamentalist Muslims for his novel The Satanic Verses, – an Iranian cleric put a fatwa, a death sentence, on his head. He had to spend years in hiding, many of them accompanied by the British security services. He wrote about those years in his book Joseph Anton: A Memoir. The title refers to the alias he adopted during those years in hiding. One interesting fact that comes out in this book is that Rushdie’s father adopted the name Rushdie in honor of the Spanish philosopher Averroes, otherwise known as Ibn Rushd ….one of the main characters in Rushdie’s latest book.
Averroes was a real person, but in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the character Ibn Rushd actually dies, stays dead for a few hundred years and then experiences a reincarnation of sorts . This is only the beginning of the wild and fantastic things that happen in this book, which chronicles a war between two camps of jinn, spirits who either help or bedevil human beings. There are bright jinns, the helpers, and dark jinns, the tormentors.
As I was reading this book, I was thinking, why does this sound so familiar? And then I started ticking off the books I have read that chronicle some kind of war between supernatural powers, one faction struggling to save humanity, the other faction working to obliterate it.
This story line starts with the Bible and goes forward through Harry Potter and beyond.What is its fascination ? I don’t know. Maybe the human mind wants to externalize its own internal struggles between right and wrong. In any event, I have read some fabulous books that feature this theme. Here are some of them.:
The first is one of my favorite novels of all time – Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This 2004 book is simply put, one of the best fantasies I have ever read.
I read this book when it came out, and then I reread it this summer after watching a wonderful film version of it, produced by the BBC. It is the story of two 19th century English magicians who start out in alliance, grow to detest one another and then finally have to reunite to attempt to save both England and Jonathan Strange’s wife, who has been enchanted and exiled to the world of Fairie.
In this book the fairies, English version, resembled Rushdie’s jinn. They are indolent – they attend endless balls, dancing until a mere mortal would drop (in Rushdie’s version, they lie around and have a lot of sex). They are both repelled and fascinated by human beings and their ceaseless striving. Eventually the human world becomes a battleground between two kinds of fairies; the ones who want to enslave humans and wreck their paradisical world, and the ones who want to help humans beat back the terrifying force of the bad fairies. As Rushdie writes: “The so-called War of the Worlds which wrought such havoc upon the earth was not only a battle between the jinn world and our own but became, in addition, a civil war among the jinn fought out on our territory, not theirs The human race became the battleground for the struggle between the bright and the dark.”
I wonder if Rushdie and Clarke have ever discussed this? They are both living British authors. How I would love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
Next up is an author we have had on Well Read, David Mitchell, author of 2014’s The Bone Clocks. This book chronicles a similar sort of war, between some supernatural creatures trying to help humans and another group who want to take over humanity, in some cases literally, taking over our bodies. At the center of this titanic struggle is a British woman named Holly, who starts the story as a teenager and ends it as a grandmother trying to save her own grandchildren from an environmental cataclysm.
Come to think of it, David Mitchell is a living British author. Hmmmmmmmm.
Next up is the great Neal Gaiman, one of my favorite fantasy authors.
Gaiman’s Neverwhere was first a television series, and then was turned into a book. It tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a pretty nondescript young Englishman who gets kicked out of his comfort zone when he stops one day to help a young English street woman in trouble (after reading this book you will never look at street people in quite the same way). He is thrust into an entire subterranean world that co-exists with the real London; real world on top, Neverwhere down below, though they tend to bleed together.
Poor Richard. He loses his job and his girlfriend and becomes invisible (literally) to everyone who knows him, and is swept up in a titanic good-and-evil battle between different factions of Neverwhere residents. It’s a creepy and imaginative book with some of the most colorful characters you will encounter in contemporary fiction.
Come to think of it, Neil Gaiman is a living British author who is good friends with Susanna Clarke. I’m sensing s conspiracy to keep us entertained!
Finally, I would like to mention ONE MORE LIVING BRITISH AUTHOR, China Mieville, whose 2009 novel The City and the City is a marvelous book about two cities, set somewhere in eastern Europe, which occupy the same physical space.
As a rave review in the Guardian put it: “Citizens of each city can dimly make out the other, but are forbidden on pain of severe penalties (administered by a supreme authority known simply as Breach) to notice it. They have learned by habit to “unsee”. The cities have different airports, international dialing codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city.”
The citizens of each city are not, under any circumstances, to migrate into the other city.
Of course someone does.
Mieville always insisted that there was no overriding political allegory in this book, that it was meant to be primarily a murder mystery. But it was impossible for me to read it without thinking of cities like Sarajevo, with Christian and Muslim populations who, individually, sometimes managed to be fast friends, but as groups went to war, at terrible cost to both sides.
I could go on into another recent series, where a boy wizard and his friends fight a war against legions of horrifyingly evil critters known as dementors to save both themselves and humanity. By another living British author….what was her name? I’ll think of it soon……