This delightful ‘fairy-tale’ is something for the young and the young at heart. However, like all good fairy-tales, and given this is Salman Rushdie, there is a very serious thesis at its core. Haroun’s father, Rashid, who goes by the name of the Ocean of Notions, or less admiringly: the Shah of Blah, is a master storyteller of Arabian Nights calibre. Rashid is “stuffed with cheery stories” until his wife – and Haroun’s mother – deserts them. In a flash, Rashid loses his story-telling powers and what comes next is a magical fantasy ride of strange creatures, figures, and places – a quest that Haroun and Rashid take to try to rescue the power of storytelling.
Haroun and Rashid travel to the ‘second’ moon Kahani, where Haroun plans to find the means to return his father’s story-telling powers. However, the moon is in a turmoil of its own as Khattam-Shud, the master of silence and darkness has kidnapped the pompous Gup Prince’s bride-to-be. Worse still, the shadows of Khattam-Shud – evil overlord of the Chupwalas – are poisoning the ocean which is made up of all the streams of stories, and are also in the process of plugging the wellspring where new stories are born. Haroun and Rashid inevitably find themselves helping the good Gupees.
This slim and multi-layered book – perfect to read as bedtime stories for youngsters, (or perfect under-the-covers reading for the rest of us!), has a serious side, as all good fairytales do: stories vs silence – the battle to keep storytelling alive and vivid in the face of dumbed-down masses that live in the world of silence. “Freedom of Speech” is a gift to be utilised. Rushdie’s message is the power of fictional stories to frame and inform our understanding of life.
Like Rashid, Rushdie is a master storyteller – which gives rise to the very personal allegory involved here. This is Salman Rushdie’s first book after The Satanic Verses – which had resulted in the fatwa for his ‘heretical’ story. , Writing under the protection of MI5 and exiled from his son – to whom the book is dedicated, Rushdie in a way has had his own storytelling powers threatened and stolen – and he wants them back. Like Haroun and Rashid, he battles a shadowy enemy: religious zealotry.
There are numerous examples of speech vs silence, light vs darkness, the material vs shadows. The Gupee half of the moon is constantly in sunlight, whilst the Chupwalas are in constant darkness. Furthermore, there is wall between their two worlds, named ‘Chattergy’s Wall’ after the Gup King. This sense of the building of walls between vastly different cultures also has a basis in real life, with the invisible wall between the West and the Middle-East.
Magical things abound, such as the ‘plentimaw’ fish who travel in pairs and who talk in rhyming couplets; flying horse machines that talk and have removable brains that are the mythical creatures one uses to get to Kahani; water genies; floating gardeners; shadows who fight – and in some case separate – from their owners; the list goes on. They all help Haroun in his battle against the dark-lord’s shadow. All standard fairy-tale fare, but delivered with Rushdie’s playful and rampant imagination. He adds layers that beg to be interpreted. Names, for instance, are important. Haroun and Rashid for instance, are taken from the “legendary Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al-Rashid, who features in many Arabian Nights tales. Their surname, Khalifa, actually means ‘Caliph’,” and there are many other examples.
I am a big Rushdie admirer, particularly his earlier books such as The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children and the short stories in East, West. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written in 1990, sits firmly within the best category of this early work. He has recently come back to something like top form, with the very good Enchantress of Venice after the less successful Fury and Shalimar the Clown (which I so wanted to love, but was a little let down by some aspects as well as the ending). He recently was quoted as saying he would soon write the story of his exile under the fatwa. I can only hope it is as adventurous and interesting as his finest work.
If you enjoy ‘adult’ fairy-tales with magic-realist elements (and what good fairy tale doesn’t have these?!), or are an avid Rushdie fan, then you’ll enjoy this. If you have young kids, I’d recommend giving it a trial run on them … (unless they’re too busy twittering or facebooking of course!)
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.