When you become doubtful of the impact of stories upon culture, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories will cheer you up. Not because it is so clearly a book that has had an impact on the world (no, The Satanic Verses will fill that role), but because it’s a book that discusses, through the vehicle of a magical, childlike story, the power of stories and how easily they can be corrupted. I suppose the corrupted part shouldn’t cheer you up – but every book needs to have a villain, and the villain happens to occupy the role of story-corrupter, which cheers me because those who corrupt stories aren’t often portrayed as villains, they are feted by marketing agencies and earn millions. Plus, a book for children that also entertains adults is a cheery prospect, not often enough enjoyed.
What makes this book even more entertaining is reading it parallel to Rushdie’s life. Haroun’s father – the Shah of Blah – is a master storyteller who is co-opted by the politicians to support their political campaigns (Compare to the enormous pressure put on Rushdie after the fatwa to say the Muslim profession of faith – there is no God but God – pressure exerted by the British government) The attacking army in the Sea of Stories wins by promoting freedom of speech between the ranks, for they all argue and their arguments make them stronger (The fatwa was placed on Rushdie’s head in the first place because dialogue about the validity of Islam wasn’t permitted – instead, an Imam threw down a death sentence for blasphemous speech) The anti-stories that are poisoning the sea of stories are there to control (the law invoked to condemn Rushdie was, ultimately, about controlling his freedom of speech)
The underlying question of the value of fiction – What’s the use of stories that aren’t true? – is repeated throughout the narrative and finally answered: stories bring his mother back, stories sustain the world (especially the older stories), and this very story is the one that Haroun’s father the Shah of Blah wins back the people with.
It’s a quick read, and ultimately, one that not only entertains but reminds us how much is at stake for writers and readers.
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