Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Originally published: 1990, UK
Rating: 5 (Personal Classic)
What do you publish after The Satanic Verses causes Iran’s prominent Muslim leader to issue a fatwā proclaiming your assassination? Salman Rushdie, an author known for his surrealist political and religious novels, publishes a children’s novel about a relationship between father and son.
Dedicated to Rushdie’s son, Haroun and the Sea of Stories focuses on an adventure through the eyes of the young Haroun, son of the legendary professional storyteller, Rashid. After Rashid’s wife, and Haroun’s mother, leaves them for another man, Rashid loses his famous storytelling ability just when he has been hired to open several political rallies. Haroun doubts the usefulness of storytelling all together and, since the disappearance of his mother at 11pm, can only pay attention to a task for 11 minutes. Rashid and Haroun travel together to the political rallies Rashid is hired to speak at, but their real adventure begins when Haroun finds a water genie in his room one night. He blackmails the water genie into taking him to Kahani, the Earth’s second hidden moon, where stories come from so that Haroun can talk to his superior, the Walrus, about getting back Rashid’s storytelling talent. When Haroun arrives on Kahani he meets new creatures and discovers that the people on either side of the moon—those in perpetual light and those in perpetual darkness—have just begun a war over a kidnapped princess. This war creates a series of crises that Haroun must deal with before he can see the Walrus.
With Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie creates a whimsical world on Kahani that remains silly and magical even when violent. The evil in the novel is truly evil, but is depicted in the way that fairy tale evil is generally depicted: frightening and violent but manageable for children. While children will enjoy the colorful characters and the silly dialogue, adults will enjoy the way Rusdie’s characters play with language and his ideas about the importance of stories, imagination, and free speech. Haroun and the Sea of Stories falls into the genre of magical realism, like many of Rushdie’s novels, so the connections between the magical and the realistic are interesting, although the magical is mostly relegated to Kahani.
Bumps in the Road:
Some adult readers may find this novel too childish. Perusing the comments for this novel on Goodreads, this is the most common reason the book is given a low rating. The story of the kidnapped princess and the war between those who live on the “day” and “night” sides of Kahani certainly do fall into narratives that adults have heard before (e.g. fairy tales), but mature readers who see this novel only as a children’s book miss the more interesting themes. The princess, though in distress, is described as ugly with a terrible singing voice every time anyone brings her up (her prince, of course, thinks she is beautiful in every way). Rushdie knows he’s playing with the damsel in distress archetype, so he has fun with it. Another example is Rushdie’s commentary on free speech with an army whose soldiers chatter constantly. This sounds annoying and seems unproductive, but each member of the army is able to discuss their orders and strategy to make sure they have the right plan, and this unity creates a strong, devoted fighting force. It is safe to say that to enjoy this novel, a reader should retain some childlike imagination and enjoyment of stories.
Do you remember the magic of the books you read as a child that swept you away to magical lands with fantastic creatures? Revisit your childhood imagination with Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It’s a quick, easy, and immensely enjoyable book.