Haroun and the Sea of Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2390 words.)