The last time I encountered Salman Rushdie’s work it was in the form of ‘Midnight’s Children‘. I was immediately struck by his vivacity of language. Six hundred pages on however, I was decidedly less enthralled. Its textual aesthetics struggled to carry me over its sheer scale and by the time I reached the last page I was heaving a sigh of relief. No so, however with his later work ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’.
Written in 1990, one year after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against his life, ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ is a fantastical adventure in its truest sense. In it we follow the adventures of young Haroun, whose storytelling father Rashid is famed throughout the city as ‘The Ocean of Notions’. However, their lives begin to fall apart when his mother runs away with their neighbour, a man who has always criticised the pointlessness of stories. In anger and grief, Haroun attacks his father: ‘What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?’ At this, his father breaks and loses all his verbal talents. In an attempt to restore his skill, Rashid travels with Haroun to the Valley of K to speak at a political rally in support of a corrupt politician. What Haroun encounters the night before the rally will change the course of his father’s career. A magical land, a captured princess and the most terrifying enemy of all, Khattam-Shud – the Great Silence.
This tale is a manifesto of the importance of free speech. Its allegorical elements play in brilliantly through the twin cities of Gup and Chup: one a chattering city of light, the other a silent citadel of perpetual night. What is key is that darkness is not the ultimate enemy within the narrative, it is instead silence and its ability to control.
… inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all.
There are clear influences within the text of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Wizard of OZ’ with its royal armies known as libraries and a choice number of whimsical companions for Haroun on his journey. Rushdie manages to capture the phantasmagorical aspects of these stories and pour them into a narrative that works both on the level of children and adults. The sheer joy and imagination within the tale is enough to keep any child happy, yet for older readers there is its obvious political undertones and linguistic pleasure.
For modern readers, its messages of free speech and debate are as vital now as they were in the wake of the highly controversial ‘The Satanic Verses’. Yet maybe for slightly different reasons. Rushdie’s ideas of freedom are clearly outlined in his depictions of the armies of Gup who debated every single order given to them and, as a result, ‘fought hard, remained united . . . like a force with a common purpose’. Rushdie portrays a freedom of speech that must be used to inspire mutual consensus and action. Difficult ideas must be discussed in order for them to be tackled with common purpose. Free speech for the sake of airing personal grievances on a public stage is a mean exercise in ego. Instead, its main purpose should help to make the world better for all.
I read this book with a sincere enjoyment of its imagination, wordplay and imagery, and would definitely recommend it to others.
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