I confess that I’ve read nothing by Salman Rushdie before, and any knowledge I have of him stems from the controversy that surrounds him. Most are probably well aware of this already, but in 1988 his novel The Satanic Verses was published, resulting in a call by Muslim extremists for his execution. Consequently, he has been forced to spend many years under police protection. I only mention this in the context of this review, because I doubt Haroun and the Sea of Stories would exist had Rushdie not experienced this concentrated effort to have him permanently silenced.
It must have been surprising for fans of Rushdie to find that the first book he published after The Satanic Verses was a children’s book (albeit a complex and lengthy one). Twelve chapters in all, with intricate, intriguing and intoxicating illustrations (try saying that three times fast) by Paul Birkbeck, this is a book that’s difficult to pin-down. And yet, it doesn’t take much to grasp that it tells the story behind The Satanic Verses controversy.
Young Haroun is the son of Rashid Khalifa, a famous storyteller, called the Ocean of Notions by his admirers and the Shah of Blah by his detractors. Yet when his wife runs off with another man, and Haroun impatiently tells him: “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Rashid finds that he can no longer tell any stories. This could not have happened at a more inopportune time, for Rashid has just been hired by a number of politicos to speak on their behalf in various cities.
Stricken with guilt, Haroun makes up his mind to restore his father’s dried-up “Story Water,” though the solution comes to him in an entirely unexpected way. He awakes one night to find a Water Genie attempting to shut off the flow of inspiration into his father’s mind, and wrangles his way into accompanying the Genie back to the second moon that orbits the world: Kahani — the source of stories.
Kahani is a beautiful place, covered in a multi-coloured ocean that contains streams and currents of stories. Huge Plentimaw fishes drink the Story-Waters and spout out brand new stories, whilst Floating Gardeners untwist complicated story streams. All of this flows from a great Wellspring at the North Pole of Kahani, and the moon itself is divided into the lands of Gup (perpetually daylight) and Chup (forever nighttime). But something is poisoning the waters, and disrupting the stories created from them. On the dark side of the moon lives Khattam-Shud (translation: ‘completely finished’ or ‘over and done with’) who is systematically ruining all the tragedies, comedies, romances, mysteries and dramas of the world. Why?
“The World is not for fun. The world is for Controlling. Your world, my world, all worlds. They are there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why.”
Of course, Haroun isn’t going to stand for any of this, and neither are the denizens of Kahani. Along with various other characters that Haroun has met on his travels, the denizens of the light side of the moon band together (in the most talkative way possible) to rescue a kidnapped princess and save the Ocean of Stories.
Rushdie paints a vivid portrait of Khattam-Shud’s portion of the moon, in which everything is shrouded in perpetual darkness, the mouths of his people are sewn together, and everyone works in dull monotony to destroy stories and plug the Wellspring. And yet, there’s room for beauty here as well, as Haroun discovers when he spots a silent swordsman who communicates in Abhinaya (the Language of Gesture). There is also a smile-inducing moment when Rashid (having been exasperated by all the arguing and debating going on amongst the army of Gup) finds that their tendency to talk endlessly has unexpected rewards.
To be honest, I don’t think I’m up to the challenge of exploring the myriad of themes and the depths of meaning in this book. Although the dichotomy between the light/dark, vocal/silent, united/disharmonious halves of the moon is straightforward enough, I’m sure there’s a lot more here to discuss on political, religious and social levels and it’s probably best for the reader to dip their head into the stream and discover these aspects of storytelling for themselves.
If I was to compare it to anything, Haroun and the Sea of Stories would be most like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland — there is the same plot of a child thrown into a beautiful yet mystifying world, in which language quirks are taken quite literally (“Adjectives can’t talk.” “Money talks, they say, so why not Adjectives?”) and the rules of existence are easily bent or broken. In fact, there is a passage that directly mimics Carroll: “[She was] as large as life and twice as beautiful.” Yup, there’s definitely a little Alice in this book!
And as in reading Alice in Wonderland, the average child might grasp the fact that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. There is meaning in every character, every circumstance, practically every word: ideas that swell up from the pages for the reader’s enjoyment and consideration. And like Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it may take a couple of years and several more reads to comprehend them all. But since Haroun and the Sea of Stories is so rewarding the first time around, I think it will be revisited by children who were properly intrigued by their first taste of it. As will adults, of course!
Try as the Khattam-Shuds of this world may (and not just those responsible for the fatwa against Rushdie, but the fundamentalists who attempt to ban books by J.K. Rowling or Philip Pullman, or the politically-correct administrators who want to censor the likes of C.S. Lewis), good stories will prevail.