Haroun and the Sea of Stories

by Salman Rushdie

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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