Confession time? I never read anything by Salman Rushdie until I picked up Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002. I found his essays on everything from “Being Photographed” to “Going to Electoral College” to be funny, pointed, and written in approachable, engaging language. So what was holding me back? Perhaps it was that intimidating glare, which makes him look as if you’re going to disappoint him no matter how hard you try. (Of course, looking for the picture I was thinking of yielded only photos of a smiling, avuncular wiseman. Strange.)
On a whim, I picked up Haroun and the Sea of Stories and began reading it aloud to my wife. It quickly became a standing date–9pm each night we’d sit down and I’d dive into The Sea. Rushdie’s enchanting story drew us along right to the wonderfully satisfying end. It practically defines what I love to see in totally escapist reading, but with a punch that few writers can pull off.
Haroun is the son of Rashid, a famous storyteller who lives in his own imagination and sometimes visits the “real” world to perform the pieces he finds in his fancy. Haroun’s mother Soraya sometimes frets over money, but is largely happy until a nasty neighbor poisons her image of Rashid, and the two run off together. Haroun rejects his father’s fantastic view of the world, and Rashid loses his storytelling facility.
Unfortunately, it’s election time in the country Alifbay, where Rashid has been hired to enchant voters so the politicians can tell equally large whoppers to earn votes. Without his skill Rashid cannot perform, and only professional pride makes him go to his last gig in the isolated Valley of K to entertain provincial voters. Haroun talks them onto a wild bus ride with a driver named Butt, who delivers them to their putative employer Snooty Buttoo and his fantastic houseboat. But aboard the houseboat, Haroun finds himself flown away to an invisible moon that houses the Sea of Stories. An immense ocean whose currents of standard storylines flow together to create new tales, the Sea is also being poisoned by “popular romances” which have turned into “long lists of shopping expeditions, and “talking helicopter anecdotes” that are spoiling the rich imaginative source that has nourished both tellers and listeners for all of human history. The poison leads back to the enemy of storytelling, “Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech” Khattam-Shud, whose name means “The End.”
With Haroun’s assistance, the good Guppees, the Plentimaw fish, and the people of P2C2E (Processes Too Complicated to Explain) defeat Khattam-Shud and his Chupwalas, and balance returns to the moon. With the Sea of Stories saved, the world undergoes a transformation that ensures the defeat of the colorless and the victory of the whimsical.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories is called a children’s story, but it would be an exceptional child (indeed an exceptional reader of any age) to catch all the puns, literary allusions, political caricature, and meaningful verbal tics Rushdie gives his magical characters. Haroun is a marvelous stand-in for readers living in the dull world. His sudden gift of a wildly psychedelic experience reminds of what we set aside as we “grow up.” It must have been a Chupwala who decided it belonged outside the realm of those who need it most.
Check the WRL catalog for Haroun and the Sea of Stories