Saving the Streams of Story

Frank Kermode

  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
    Granta, 224 pp, £12.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 14 014223 1

No doubt it would be possible to apply to this exercise in magic irrealism the terminology of V. Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, by way of demonstrating that Salman Rushdie’s story has a perfectly normal structure. Temporal-Spatial Determination (‘There was once, in the kingdom of Alifbay, a sad city ...’); Composition of the Family (Haroun, the Future Hero, his father Rashid, a professional storyteller, etc); Interdictions (Rashid loses his talent, Haroun cannot concentrate longer than 11 minutes); Helpers or Donors (a friendly hoopoe, a magic drink, a cartridge, concealed under Haroun’s tongue, which will emit blinding light at the moment of dark crisis); an Opponent or Villain with magic powers; an Arrival at an Appointed Place; an Imprisoned Princess; the Completion of the Task. Haroun, in short, is a folk tale, and indeed this is perfectly evident without the support of Propp’s insights. Of course, Rushdie’s story has more to do with the Arabian Nights type than with the Slavic. And as it incorporates English fantasy and humour, and could hardly have been as it is without an infusion of Alice, it can be seen as illustrating just such a glowing confusion of narrative traditions, of the diversities and affinities of stories, as it is itself about.

The publisher seems to be a bit afraid that people may think Haroun simply a children’s book. It is certainly that, even in being full of the adult jokes, tricks and ingenuities of the sort children enjoy. But it is true that there are hints and implications, presumably included for the benefit of their elders, about which the children need not trouble their heads unless they feel like it.

The story, then, is traditional in design, but it is also very modern, old but sounding new, simple yet self-referring in that it is a story about stories of the type it is itself, or, more simply, a story about Story. What it has to say about Story amounts to a demand for narrative or imaginative freedom, for the rights and duties of artists, and, by extension, of free people. Hence there are generated, quite naturally, some biographical overtones: that is, there is a connection between this story of Story and those more complex exercises in magic irrealism we associate with a storyteller whom a lot of people – Opponents, as narratologists might call them – wish to silence. Haroun is a defiance of the menacing forces of silence, a refusal to accept the drab as the only truth. It protests against the pollution of the streams of story by the dirt of anti-story, which can be understood as the antithesis of imagination and indeed of personal freedom.

This may suggest that Rushdie’s assault on silence and oppression is, for its grown-up readers, a monitory allegory, and so a pretty solemn business. On the contrary, it is carried out with a notable gaiety of language, with fluent and fantastic invention, with much hilarity and much humanity, and also with a craft that is a pleasure in itself. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a brave and delightful invention.

In the sad city that has forgotten its name Rashid the storyteller had been a precious source of pleasure. But then something went wrong, sadness invaded him and his house. He began to believe the bores who told him that the retailing of fictions was an idle and useless occupation, with no relation to the real world. ‘What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?’ He loses his talent and also his wife, who goes off with a mingy, story-despising clerk. The Quest of the boy Haroun is to restore his father’s powers and bring back his mother. It was at the moment of her departure, 11 a.m., that the appalled Rashid broke all the clocks, which is why Haroun, at first disastrously, finds it impossible to concentrate on anything for longer than 11 minutes. This is an interdiction he must overcome before he can bring off his Quest.

Rashid (father and son together make up Haroun-al-Rashid) tells the boy that his stories are piped to him from the Great Story Sea through an invisible tap. This sounds like a blague, but, like various other things and persons that can’t, in reality, be what they seem, it turns out to be true. Fantastic Helpers convey Haroun to Kahani, a second Moon undetectable from Earth. Its name means Story, and Kahani, as we later discover, is also the true forgotten name of the sad city. On Kahani Haroun finds the Sea of Stories, fed from an ancient and increasingly polluted source. Among its peculiar denizens are the plentimaws (plenty more fish in the sea, see, and these ones have many mouths or maws). In this sea all the multicoloured currents are stories, which interact and blend with one another, and from this ocean of narrative the privileged draw tales through their taps.

Soon it becomes evident that half of Kahani is in perpetual sunlight, the other half in darkness, with a twilight zone between. The bright part is inhabited by an innocently chattering, innocuous people. But in the dark half live the enemies of Story and speech, vassals of the Villain and his black magic, most of them with their lips sewn up. The Villain is called Khattam-shud, which means ‘finished, done with’, and that is the fate he wants for Story. He hates Story because ‘inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule ...’ So he is systematically polluting the sea at its source, and planning to plug that source, the ancient origin of stories. The carefree Guardians of the story-ocean rightly reproach themselves for their negligence:

  Look at the Ocean, look at it! The oldest stories ever made, and look at them now. We let them rot, we abandoned them, long before this poisoning. We lost touch with our beginnings, with our roots, with our Wellspring, our Source. Boring, we said, not in demand, surplus to requirements. And now look, just look! No colour, no life, no nothing. Spoilt!

The Ocean must be saved, that is part of Haroun’s Quest, for without its copious supply of story his father is done for, khattam-shud. But the Quest becomes a double one, for the Villain has abducted the Princess of the sunlit land. The rescue of the Princess constitutes a very conventional Quest – though, for the sake of variation, she is unconventionally ugly, and her Prince Bolo is a posturing harmless ass. So there has to be a double war between the children of light, the blabbermouths who talk all the time, and the silent, story-hating, talk-hating children of darkness, who have the unfair advantage of being able to double their force by detaching their shadows, so that the children of light and Story have to take on two armies.

How Haroun, with the aid of his Helpers, saved the day, purified the story-sea, destroyed the plug, enjoyed a Kahanian recognition scene with his father and renewed his interrupted supply of tales, incidentally restoring the ugly Princess to her foolish lover, is the substance of the remainder of this ingenious narrative. Back on Earth, Rashid, his gift restored, tells the story of the story we have been attending to, and with immediate effect: his listeners understand the message and vehemently reject a wicked politician. The sad city becomes a happy one, its true name recovered.

It would be hard to exaggerate the verve, the fun and the inventiveness of Rushdie’s telling of his tale. Every phase of it is comically adorned, as when the army of the good guys is actually a library, the soldiers dressed as book pages, its more junior members being (by profession) pages, the more senior being described, by an extension of the process inaugurated by the pun, as chapters and volumes; the general, calf-bound, is called Kitab, which means Book. The business of calling the unruly, chattering force to order is one of Pagination and Collation. There is a splendid, eerie fight between a warrior and his own shadow. Haroun’s own adventures in the shadow kingdom are exciting and funny, as indeed the whole novel is, with its fertile incident and its set of running gags. One hopes that in the author’s own Quest there will be Helpers as adequate as Haroun’s: friends of chatter, light and magic, enemies of all lip-sealing indicters, all haters of Story and free speech.