H is for ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories‘ by Salman Rushdie. The very first sentences draw the reader into a magical world with ease.
There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.
And as you continue reading, the next couple of paragraphs both dazzle and delight the reader furthermore, in spite of its reference to sadness….
In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.
And in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by the name of Haroun, the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, whose cheerfulness was famous throughout that unhappy metropolis, and whose never-ending stream of tall, short and winding tales had earned him not one but two nicknames. To his admirers he was Rashid the Ocean of Notions, as stuffed with cheery stories as the sea was full of glumfish; but to his jealous rivals he was the Shah of Blah. To his wife, Soraya, Rashid was for many years as loving a husband as anyone could wish for, and during these years Haroun grew up in a home in which, instead of misery and frowns, he had his father’s ready laughter and his mother’s sweet voice raised in song.
Then something went wrong.
Does this not make you want to read the book? Every week, as I pick the book I want to write about in this weekly feature, I end up reading it all over again! And if you feel like reading it now, you can get it here. I reviewed it a while ago on my blog here. And in my review, I compared reading this book to watching a beautiful sunset. That feeling has not changed for me since I first read it. Each reading of the book delights me anew. And you will see this book appear across many, many Top Ten lists on my blog, so it is no surprise that it is the featured book for the letter H this week.
As you read this book, you will find references to and parallels with other works of literature and art, like Alice, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Wizard of Oz, the Beatles even!
Haroun is the son of Rashid, a story-teller also known as the Shah of Bhah, with the wonderful Gift of Gab who can weave stories like magic, and who is very much in demand and popular in that aforementioned sad city in Alifbay. But one day, ‘something went wrong’ and resulted in something more disastrous – Rashid loses his gift, his voice. As Haroun travels to the literary moon of Kahani (meaning story) to help recover his dad’s lost gift, he realizes that there is more to the problem. He has to ensure that the Sea of Stories is saved, as well as rescue Princess Batcheat of Gup (Batcheat meaning chit-chat). To help him on his quest are the really cool Water Genie (Iff) and the hoopoe bird/bus driver Butt, as well as Mali (literally gardener) who is the Head-Gardener of the floating gardens of Kahani. This reminded me of Dorothy on her journey to Oz. He also meets other fanciful, delightful characters like the Plentimaw Fish (there are plenty more fish in the sea!!) who have mouths all over their body and speak in rhymes.
I loved the villain too – his name: Khattam-Shud meaning ‘completely finished’; his goal: the end of language itself; and he rules the land of Chup (meaning silent) on Kahani and that land is darkness itself where silence literally is the rule; and the Sea of Stories is slowly being poisoned here. But there is another side to this moon too – in the form of the land of Gup (meaning talk) where the soldiers are ‘pages’ and organized into chapters and led by General Kitab (meaning book). And there is Haroun, on his journey to recover the gift of gab, and now embroiled in the battle of Gup and Chup.
Read on to find out more and discover how real-life and fantasy play with each other in this story. So yes, this book is a must read if you are looking for a delightful roller-coaster of wordplay, puns, wonderful cast of characters where each and every character is truly memorable and worth knowing, for that pure joy and simple fun of reading, for the magic of words, and even if you plan to dig deep into the hidden meanings, the allegory, and the hows and whys of the book.
And a little more about the book and its author’s insights into the book: In a 2015 interview with VPR (Vermont Public Radio), Salman Rushdie discusses the book. And here are a couple of excerpts from that interview
Of how this book began: My son who, at the time, he’s now 35, but at the time the book was written, he was 10, 11 years old and kept badgering me to write a book that he could read. And some of this began as stories that I would tell him, like bedtime stories, and of course those were much, much simpler, and briefer, but they contained the germ of this idea that there might be somewhere a magical sea where all of the stories come from and that was elaborated into the book. (from the interview referenced above)
And the dedication on this book sums what he says above so well (his son’s name – Zafar) and note that when the book was published, Rushdie was still in hiding due to the fatwa.
Zembla, Zenda, Xanadu:
All our dream-worlds may come true.
Fairy lands are fearsome too.
As I wander far from view
Read, and bring me home to you.
About the threat to the freedom of expression (and in reference to this book): I was trying to talk about the battle between speech and those who would strangle it, those who would gag it, silence it, and that very much came out of the experience that I had just gone through. (from the interview referenced above)
“He knew what he knew: that the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.”
This post goes towards ABC Wednesday‘s round 22 – letter H (my theme for ABC Wednesday’s Round 22 is children’s books – I will pick one popular (and sometimes the not so popular/the unknown) book – classic/modern/old/new… – and write about it – be it a backstory or facts or something else completely).
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