I haven’t read very much of Salman Rushdie’s work – Midnight’s Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I don’t recall either particularly well. I came to this book then, uncertain what to expect. I didn’t expect, certainly, what Rushdie hints at – that he’s an aficionado of Golden Age SF. It doesn’t show particularly in the novel; it’s just one of the many interesting bits Rushdie drops throughout the book.
If there’s one thing that comes clear from this book (let’s call it 1,001 Nights for short), it’s that Salman Rushdie is erudite. He’s an intellectual, one of the intelligentsia, the literati, the highbrow. 1,001 Nights is positively brimming with erudition, with references from Simak to Phytophthora to Veblen, and all sorts of stops in between. Rushdie is a man who’s clearly read a lot, thinks a lot, and brings it all into play in his writing. Happily and somewhat surprisingly, all these references don’t come across as pretentious or affected. One gets the impression that these are things draws on not to show off, but because he genuinely knows about them.
All this intelligence and knowledge is helped by a consistent sly, dry humor cropping up at odd moments. Rushdie doesn’t take himself or his characters too seriously, even when writing about serious matters. And serious matters there certainly are – there are multiple levels of parable and meta-reference in this story, but Rushdie comes out pretty clearly with several. First, religion is more harmful than helpful, and we’ll be better off when we give it up, even if that comes with a cost. Second, and related, humans are flawed, but we can and should work for a world driven by reason, tolerance, and knowledge rather than one driven by fear and faith. (And we can’t trust scholars too much.)
Sadly, a positive message, dry humor, and undeniable intelligence are also undercut by dense prose, many meandering asides, and a story that, overall, is fairly dull. The writing is intriguing on an intellectual level, and good in small doses. As a story, though, 1,001 Nights is not a success. Despite grand stakes and battles of good and evil, with humanity in the balance, there’s no real emotional component to the story. There are too many characters floating around, and most of them distant. Rushdie makes an effort to center the story on Geronimo (Rafael Hieronymus) the gardener, but I never developed any real interest in him. He and the other characters were too evidently set furniture for a clever but bloodless parable.
In all, a dense intellectual exercise that fails as a story. Interesting to read, but not really amusing.