Haroun and the Sea of Stories

by Salman Rushdie

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The most basic issue with which Salman Rushdie grapples is the relationship between truth and fiction, as revealed through telling stories. The titular protagonist, Haroun, poses this thorny question to his storyteller father: “What's the use of stories that aren't even true?” As Haroun gradually begins to see the use of untrue stories, he and Rashid, his father, experience numerous adventures that lead the toward the restoration of his father’s temporarily turned-off abilities to tell such untruths.

Boy and man must depart from their hometown, in part because the city has sunk into partial anonymity and cannot provide the answers they seek. Rushdie uses the idea of a name to stand for identity, memory, history, and purpose. Within the country known as Alifbay (A plus B in Arabic), there is a city where people have lost their knowledge of its true name and, along with that knowledge, their ability to enjoy life and understand their reason for being. It has slipped into being a “sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad it had forgotten its name.” Even their food is “miserable”; eating “glumfish . . . makes them belch with melancholy.” Rashid’s storytelling contrasted vividly to that glumness, as he produced a “never-ending stream of tall and winding tales.”

One important thing that Haroun learns is that these made-up stories he questions are not really all made up after all. The idea of memory and history as being connected through stories is expressed by the Water Genie they meet, named Iff, who explains his ideas about continuity and the importance of literary and cultural influences for modern people. Iff describes the Plentimaw Fishes that are swimming around their boat as adapters of stories who both consume and produce the tales; storytelling stems from a kind of hunger.

They swallow stories through every mouth, and in their innards miracles occur; a little bit of one story joins on to an idea from another, and hey presto, when they spew the stories out they are not the old tales but new ones. Nothing comes from nothing, Thieflet; no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old—it is the new combinations that make them new.

On the boat, Haroun observes how even the most ordinary tasks can cover up a more sinister purpose. He watches the Chupwalas, who are part of the order of the Zipped Lips, do all the routine jobs that keep the ship running but also destroy the story streams in the ocean.

Haroun kept being struck by . . . how monotonous was the work they had been given. . . . It was all as boring as could be; and yet . . . what these scurrying, cloaked, weaselly, scrawny, snivelling clerical types were actually up to was nothing less than the destruction of the Ocean of the Streams of Story itself! “How weird,” Haroun said to Iff, “that the worst things of all can look so normal and, well, dull.”

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