When I was given the “R” title in the Penguin Drop Caps series I really had no idea what to expect. I was delighted by the rich azure cover, the cobalt page edges and the swirly gold cover initial embellished with an Indian motif, but all I knew about Salman Rushdie was based on an ad campaign in the Toronto subway system promoting some new book of his and the news that Muslim clerics had issued a fatwa against him. Because of the subway ads I assumed he was a Canadian writer. And because of the scary-sounding fatwa against his book The Satanic Verses I assumed he was promoting some kind of paganism that was offensive to Muslims. Wrong and wrong again.
Salman Rushdie is a British-Indian Muslim-background atheist. Nothing Canadian about him, sadly. The Satanic Verses is based, not on anything satanic, but on some verses that are found in early copies of the Quran but not in later versions. However, even though it was a book by a man born into a Muslim family about Muslims, the book unleashed a firestorm of passionate hatred against the author and an attempt was made on his life in 1989, after which he went into hiding.
Yes, I know, you thought this was a review of Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Here’s the connection. Haroun and the Sea of Stories was published in 1990, which means that Rushdie was no doubt working on it during all this controversy. It is a story that asks, right off the bat—and right on the back of the Penguin Drop Caps edition—“All this fun will come to no good. What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”
You see, Haroun’s mother has just left his storytelling father for a man with no imagination. And as a result of his grief, Rashid, the dad, finds nothing comes out of his mouth when he opens it to tell stories or sing. However, before Rashid figures out that this is a permanent change and not just one bad performance, some shrewd politicians hire him to draw crowds. No one wants to come and hear the candidates’ fictions disguised as truths, the logic goes, but they’ll come out in force to hear real stories. On the way to the big rally with his father, Haroun begins meeting some unusual characters and before he knows what’s happening, he’s been tasked with the mission to save the Sea of Stories which has become polluted and to prevent Khattam-Shud, the Prince of Silence, from putting an end to all language. Haroun wants to know what they mean by pollution and discovers what must be weeded out of the sea: “Certain popular romances have become just long lists of shopping expeditions. Children’s stories also. For instance, there is an outbreak of talking helicopter anecdotes.” I’m not sure which novels and picture books Rushdie is referring to here (Judith Krantz’s romances? Sarah, Duchess of York’s Budgie stories?), but considering the fact that there was an upsurge of both with the Confessions of a Shopaholic series and spin-offs from the Cars sequels, it is an eerily clairvoyant remark.
So off goes Haroun to clean up the Sea of Stories, to rescue the Princess Batcheat, to bring down the villain Khattam-Shud, and to help his father climb out of depression and tell stories again.
Many people have compared Haroun and the Sea of Stories to Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. For me, the closest comparison is actually Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, because both are cautionary tales absolutely riddled with puns and wordplay: Plentimaw fishes in the sea, Iff and his sidekick Butt, royal Pages (who rustle into position by Chapter and Volume), not to mention the Eggheads and the Walrus (“We are the Eggheads. He is the Walrus”). In addition to all the puns, other aspects of language are brought to life with the various characters. Iff, the Water Genie, speaks in triplets of synonyms and idioms: “Let’s make tracks, scram, vamoose.” Blabbermouth the page speaks emphatically, her speech loaded with italics. The Plentimaw fishes speak in rhymes. My one criticism is that you have to be in a certain mood to read this story. The silliness can be a little over-the-top. That’s why I think this book would make an excellent read-aloud for 10-year-olds because they’d be able to follow the twists and turns of the story and get some of the jokes, while benefitting from an adult explaining other humour and social commentary.
From a technical perspective, I enjoyed how Rushdie lets us know who (besides ourselves) is listening to the story and how they react. Near the end, we find out that Rashid (a play on Rushdie?) tells the story to the crowd come to hear the politician Snooty Buttoo. I was just dipping into Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose for the hundredth time—I always glean something new—and she says that one of the issues every writer must address is “On what occasion is the story being told, and why?” It’s always fun to have a story-within-a-story and Haroun is an example of using this technique at the end instead of the beginning of the novel.
Essentially, Haroun and the Sea of Stories answers the question, “Where do stories come from?” (“New stories are born from old—it is the new combinations that make them new”) and cautions us to remember that the enemies of the story are silence and violence. Without storytelling, we descend into darkness and therefore must not allow anything to pollute the source of our stories. Is Rushdie speaking from personal experience, or what?