Haroun and the Sea of Stories

by Salman Rushdie

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Last Updated on June 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328

Both the public and critics were surprised when Salman Rushdie followed The Satanic Verses with a children’s book. Fundamentalists had condemned the earlier novel, and the related death threats caused Rushdie to go into hiding. He found it difficult to write under such circumstances, which also sparked widespread reflection on freedom of speech and religion. The large question of speaking truth to power is at the center of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Multiple layers of creativity emerge in a story crafted to be accessible to children and, at the same time, to bring them the message of the crucial role of storytelling. The ominous effects of silencing any writer are conveyed through a personal story to which a child could relate, the separation of their parents. Haroun’s initial dilemma is that he is left with his father, Rashid, when his mother abandons the family, but his father’s grief partly destroys his storytelling ability. Ironically, he can speak only the truth. Haroun at first does not understand this as a disadvantage, because he wonders at the usefulness of fiction; he wisely asks who needs things that are not true.

Rushdie combines aspects of multiple genres, drawing heavily on the Western satirical tradition that uses the children’s book guise, with a considerable debt to Lewis Carroll. Haroun and Rashid enter a kind of wonderland as they search for a way to restore Rashid’s storytelling powers. The places and adventures they have are connected to real locations and political developments. The author also draws on the rich storytelling traditions of his own cultural background, including Scheherazade’s acts of personal salvation through storytelling; they travel on a boat called Arabian Nights Plus One. Connecting specifically with the Indian subcontinent, Rushdie directly references a classical Indian story cycle, known since the eleventh century, titled The Ocean of the Streams of Story (Kathasaritsagara). Pulling together elements of diverse traditions, Rushdie emphasizes the universality of his theme.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2390

The two years preceding the publication of Haroun and the Sea of Stories were a nightmare come all too true for Anglo- Indian fabulist Salman Rushdie. The publication of his fourth novel, the densely written, dreamlike The Satanic Verses, in 1988 earned for its author the last word in negative reviews, a death sentence issued by the book’s best-known, most powerful, and certainly most literal-minded nonreader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who saw in the book either sacrilege on the part of a nominally Muslim writer or the opportunity to consolidate his own waning political power as leader of Islamic fundamentalists—perhaps both. Since the issuing of the death sentence and the placing of a bounty on his all—too-recognizable head, Rushdie has lived in hiding, separated from his wife, the novelist Marianne Wiggins, and his son, Zafar, under round-the-clock police protection. His situation has naturally attracted considerable attention worldwide: riots in India and Pakistan, book burnings in England, bomb threats against the book’s publisher, Viking Penguin, and Rushdie’s recent return to Islam—all tailor-made for American network news. Less newsworthy but no less noteworthy has been the support of people such as Bill Buford, editor of the English literary magazine Granta, who have, with little fanfare, continued to publish the little Rushdie has managed to write since going underground. Although he briefly surfaced for a handful of television interviews and, unannounced, suddenly materialized at a London bookshop to sign copies of his 1990 novel, his fate remains lamentably uncertain, as does that of The Satanic Verses, which, despite all the debate about freedom of speech and freedom to publish, has not appeared in paperback and so has become as effectively censored in the West as it has always been in countries such as Iran where its publication and distribution are banned. Given this curious state of affairs—more fabulous than realistic, something like a joke were the consequences not so deadly serious—readers might well have expected Rushdie’s next book to be either a bitter denunciation of his accusers or, more cynically, an act of appeasement. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is neither; it is rather a work at once pointed and generous—a novel (as the dust jacket calls it) only because the novel is itself literature’s most generous and flexible form, encompassing all, democratically excluding nothing. What Haroun and the Sea of Stories evidences is not merely its author’s courage or his concern for his own future but also the same determined hopefulness one finds on every page—even the angriest—of his greatest work, Midnight’s Children (1981).

Set in the country of Alifbay (alphabet) in a city so sad its people have forgotten its name, Haroun and the Sea of Stories begins when Rashid Khalifa, a professional storyteller known to his admirers as the Ocean of Notions and to his detractors as the Shah of Blah, returns home one day to discover that his sweet-voiced wife, Soraya, has run off with their neighbor, Mr. Sengupta, a mousy clerk of facts and despiser of imagination. Bad times worsen when Haroun, angered by his mother’s flight, turns on his father and, sounding much like Soraya and Mr. Sengupta, demands to know what is the point of telling stories that are not even true.

The truth of fiction—of Rashid’s stories and Rushdie’s novels—comes via a P2C2E, a Process Too Complicated to Explain. In Rashid’s case it is a process too complicated even to be told, because Haroun’s anger, coupled with Soraya’s departure, have left the storyteller in a way mute—able to speak but not in stories, only in the words of dull reality. For Rashid as for Rushdie, storytelling is both life and livelihood. Politicians pay him to speak at their rallies, knowing that the voters will believe his stories but not their speeches. So, with little hope for success, Rashid and Haroun travel by express mail bus, driven by Butt, to the Valley of K (Kashmir) to speak at a rally for Snooty Buttoo (as in Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto), who, smiling his “movie-star smile” and denying any connection at all with the kind but plebeian bus driver Butt, demands “up-beat sagas only.” Crossing Dull Lake, Haroun sees, or thinks he sees, “strange currents, crisscrossing in intricate patterns,” as intricate as the patterns of Rushdie’s novel modeled on an eleventh century Indian story cycle entitled Kathasaritsagara (The Katha’ sarit sagara: Or Ocean of the Streams of Story, 1880-1884), a complete set of which is conveniently located aboard the houseboat, aptly named Arabian Nights Plus One, where Rashid and Haroun are to spend the night. Thus does Rushdie set the stage for Haroun’s dream which is to follow and in which both Haroun’s father and Rushdie’s reader will share. Waking from sleep—one of the most common dreams of all—and meeting Iff, the Water Genie, or plumber, who has been sent to disconnect Rashid’s supply of story water, Haroun conceives, or imagines, the bold plan of traveling to the land of Gup on Kahani (the Hindi word for story) in the hope of having his father’s powers restored. How exactly Haroun uses theft and blackmail to secure the Water Genie’s help is not a process too complicated to explain, only too involved to summarize, as is so much in this brilliantly and wackily driven tale. Suffice it to say that in the realm of fable to which Haroun travels and in which the reader breathlessly and joyously hurries onward, nothing is simple, including Kahani, Earth’s other moon, which turns out to be as beset by political controversy as the beautiful Valley of K—Kashmir—torn apart by the conflicting religious and political claims of neighboring Pakistan and India.

Guided by an Iff and riding a Butt (Butt the Hoopoe, a mechanical bird), Haroun meets a host of fabulous characters. There are the gentle, credulous, ever-chattering Guppees, who live in the land of endless debate and machine-managed perpetual light; Mali, the floating gardener; Bagha and Goopy, the monogamous Plentimaw Fish (in the sea), who speak in rhyming couplets through their plentiful mouths; the closet feminist Blabbermouth, disguised as a boy in the all-male Gup army, or rather library, of pages; their nominal leader, King Chattergy, along with his ugly—and even uglier-voiced—daughter, Princess Batcheat, and her thoroughly inept but always blustering fiance’, the Ubu-like Prince Bob; and the real leader, the Grand Comptroller of P2C2E, the Walrus, and his staff of technocrats, the Eggheads.

And then there are their enemies, the Chupwalas (the quiet fellows), “scurrying, cloaked, weaselly, scrawny, snivelling clerical types,” who live in the land of darkness under the rule of the fearsome Khattum-Shud, “the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech,” whose very name means “the end.” He is “the Arch- Enemy of all stories, even of Language itself,” who reserves for himself what he denies to others, the right to speak, the master sorcerer who has found a way to give life to his shadow, and also the master polluter who poisons the Sea of Stories with a thick soup of antifictions, and who is preparing to plug the story source once and for all.

His plan proceeds all too well until Haroun, realizing that the shadow world can exist only in total darkness, uses the bottle of Wishwater Iff had given him and wishes that the moon Kahani would turn on its axis and flood Chup with light. His plan works; Khattam-Shud’s floating poison factory melts into thin air, as do the Chup shadow selves. It is a victory for the Guppees but also something of a loss for the Eggheads, who find themselves “defeated by a power they could not imagine”—the power of imagination itself—when Haroun’s wish destroys the machinery they had used to hoard all the sunlight for themselves while subjecting the Chups to the perpetual night of Third World status.

As Haroun and the Sea of Stories draws to its inevitable Khattum-Shud, happy endings proliferate. Running for his life on little clerk’s legs, the “real” Khattum-Shud dies when the ice-idol of Bezaban, fashioned in the image of the tyrant’s far more imposing shadow self, topples. The Gup defeat of the Chups becomes a victory over hostility and suspicion and for friendship and openness between neighbors. Rashid has his supply of story water restored, and Haroun is naturally (it is his dream, after all) hailed as a hero; as a reward the Walrus grants him one wish, an offer that tries Haroun’s belief in the power of magic and fable. Back on Earth, however, the happy endings continue. Rashid’s story at Snooty Buttoc’s rally, which is the story of Haroun and the Sea of Story, rallies the audience against this more prosaic Khattum-Shud, whom they run out of town, leaving them free to vote for leaders whom they like rather than fear. In the sad city the people are no longer sad and can now remember its name, Kahani, “story,” a name that is not merely, like the devil, legion, but also without end. Haroun is impressed but still skeptical until his mother returns and he awakes a second time, this time on his birthday, with gifts of clothing and a new clock, restored to time.

Like any good fable, Haroun and the Sea of Stories both delights and instructs, but instructs in the sense that Aesop’s fables did before latter-day didacticists appended heavy-handed morals in order to limit the power of the former slave’s enigmatic and often subversive stories. The simplicity of Haroun and the Sea of Stories thus proves deceptive, the mask of a richly woven narrative whose source cannot be reduced to any single political act, personal grievance, or literary work. The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (narrated by another captive storyteller, Scheherazade) and The Katha sarit sagara—two long story cycles drawn from earlier lost sources—play their heavily foregrounded parts, but there are plenty more fish in Rushdie’s intertextual sea. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Peter Pan (1904), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Greek myth, Grimm Brothers fairy tales, Dante, the Ramayana, Hindi films, James Bond novels and films, Dr. Seuss, Dr. Doolittle, Jonathan Swift, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859), Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, Donald Barthelme, and others have their parts to play in a text that extends from the ancient to the contemporary, East to West, India to England, classic works to popular culture. At once mythic and modern (with references to global warming, the ozone layer, superstrings, black holes, terrorist jugglers, and “really fashionable wrap-around dark glasses”), Haroun and the Sea of Stories constitutes “a spectacular fusion of the familiar” (to borrow a line from one of Robert Coover’s novels). The range of reference is as wide as the narrative is inventive and the verbal logic is playful. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is concerned with both its own inventive powers—its own imaginative reach—and its author’s homage to his past, his acknowledgment of the interdependence of all stories and of all writers and readers. Protected by a stolen poison-proof diving suit, Haroun drops through the polluted waters and catches a glimpse of the wellspring of the sea of stories; Rushdie’s reader catches a similar glimpse on every page of a novel “made up of a thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity,” a novel that is a joyous celebration and eloquent defense of storytelling and its power to alter a world dulled by monologic sameness.

Much of this novel’s poignancy is summed up in the last line of its verse epigraph, acrostically inscribed to the author’s son, Zafar, in which the novelist-father directs his reader-son to “read, and bring me home to you.” Yet much of the power of this remarkable novel derives from a very different source: the “turbulence” that worries Haroun when he hears so many voices clamoring to be heard at once. As Butt the Hoopoe says, however, “Any story worth its salt can handle a little shaking up.” The same holds true of any political or religious system. Against any and all forms of despotic control, Rushdie posits the fabulist’s artful unleashing of a multiplicity of narrative forces, an act of aesthetic creation rather than of anarchic destruction, a celebration of democracy on an Indian scale—vast, teeming, turbulent. Realizing that such narrative turbulence may be misread, narrowed into simplistic equations rather than understood in terms of complex relations, Rushdie inscribes in his text a reading lesson. Haroun and the Guppees misread the strange and to them menacing movements and coughed and garbled words of Murdra the Champion Chup Shadow Warrior, until the multilingual Rashid realizes that Mudra is speaking rather eloquently in the language of gesture—based, one assumes, on that most graceful and complicated of all performing arts, Indian classical dance, in which the dancer tells her story by means of eye movements, hand gestures, facial expressions, and the like—a rich vocabulary of gesture, a grammar of fluid movement. The reader of Haroun and the Sea of Stories (or of The Satanic Verses) must learn a similar lesson:

to situate any given word in relation to the larger and evershifting intra- and intertextual whole in which it plays its part. Otherwise, the reader risks transmogrifying the fabulous into the merely factual, the almost otherworldly beauty of Kashmir, etymologically Kache-Mer, the place that hides the lake that is the sea of story, into Kosh-Mar, or nightmare.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, October 1, 1990, p.203.

The Economist. CCCXVII, October 6, 1990, p.110.

Guardian Weekly CXLIII, October 14, 1990, p.27.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, September 1, 1990, p.1201.

London Review of Books. XII, September 27, 1990, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 11, 1990, p.3.

The New Republic. CCIII, December 10, 1990, p.37.

New Statesman and Society. III, September28, 1990, p.33.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, November 11, 1990, p.1.

Newsweek. CXVI, November 5, 1990, p.81.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, October 12, 1990, p.47.

Time. CXXXVI, October 8, 1990, p.23.

The Times Literary Supplement. September28, 1990, p.1036.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, November 4, 1990, p.1.

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