Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

In college, I skimmed a terrible book* by Salman Rushdie and crossed my fingers that it would be relevant for two days of discussion then forgotten. It wasn’t and I tanked multiple papers in succession. This sour experience struck Rushdie from my list of intriguing authors. It wasn’t until a decade later when I perused a list of his books that I realized he didn’t write The Terrible Book. Only now do I realize how much I’ve missed out. Rushdie is brilliant!

By the time I turned to the second page of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I was grinning ear-to-ear, feeling like a ten-year-old in anticipation of a bedtime story. I’m so stoked over this first page (page 15 in my edition) that here it is, [nearly] in full:

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.

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. (15)

If you’re still here (and not off reading Haroun, where you should be), I’ll provide a quickie synopsis: Haroun’s father, the Ocean of Notions, runs out of stories. No one knows why until Haroun runs into a water genie disconnecting his father’s subscription to the Great Story Stream of Kahani (an invisible moon). He confiscates the Water Genie’s Disconnecting Tool and holds it ransom until his father’s connection can be restored. What follows is a bizarre adventure with telepathic hoopoes, tone-deaf regals, and shadow warriors from the dark side of Kahani. In trying to restore his father’s subscription, Haroun is pulled into a larger battle to save the story sea from being poisoned by Khattam-Shud:

“Khattam-Shud,” he said slowly, “is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech. And because everything ends, because dreams end, stories end, life ends, at the finish of everything we use his name. ‘It’s finished,’ we tell one another, ‘it’s over. Khattam-Shud: The End.'” (39)

Haroun runs according to its own logic. Does it make sense that Rashid Khalifa’s stories come to him via an invisible tap? Nope; his subscription is managed by a P2C2E (Process Too Complicated To Explain) while mechanical miracles are handled by M2C2Ds (Machines Too Complicated To Describe). In the hands of a lesser writer, these P2C2Es and M2C2Ds would be improperly deployed as deus ex machinas. Instead, Rushdie makes heaviest use of them at the story’s outset to define his world’s curious logic and cue the reader to expect anything. They’re not used to fix things in a clumsy, too convenient way. They explain why things are the way they are and provide a jumping-off point for the actual story.

Rushdie constructs his story differently than your typical coming-of-age-via-trip-to-magical-realm fantasy and the people of Kahani mirror those from Haroun’s real life. This adds a dreamy quality and allows him to flesh out multiple characters at once. That the two worlds complement each other makes the return to the real world at the story’s close feel satisfying instead of like a cheap “and then they woke up” coda. Each character speaks in a unique, defined voice which enables a reader to more easily track characters between the two worlds.

Overall: 4.4 (out of 5.0) This book was fun with lots of clever wordplay. The shifts from wonderment to suspense are well-managed. It reads in a single sitting and is vivacious and fresh.

Careful readers with keen observational powers may notice that this review makes no mention of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge I’m participating in. I read Haroun a week before the challenge started and kicked it off with Luka and the Fire of Life. In writing my review for Luka, I realized I needed to start here as the books are linked and reading Haroun first allows the reader to more fully appreciate Luka’s adventure.

*I wonder if the book is as bad as I remember or if I was too busy sulking over the professor’s teaching style. She liked to spout her highbrow/pretentious theory at the start of each book with a lecture to “think about this as you read” and despised counter-theories that attempted to make sense of the book as a whole instead of cherry-picked passages.

6 thoughts on “Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie”

  1. I loved this book though I admit Ove always been a fan of Rushdie since I got turned on to him by the tale of Vina Apsara in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Like you I have a few authors I was turned off to by over-hyping tutors ( still turn up my nose at Hemingway to this day!) though for every tutor who put me off there were others who really got me into things I’d never have got into otherwise!

    1. I’ve only read two books by Rushdie, but both have been brilliant. I’ll need to add The Ground Beneath Her Feet to my queue for sure. I’ve heard it has characters from his other stories–do I need to read them first?

      I haven’t touched any of Hemingway’s books since HS English… His short stories are a lot better. Maybe it’s just because no one made me read them. 🙂

    1. Part of why I re-evaluated Rushdie is because I saw an interview with him and was surprised to find he had a sense of humor. The book I’d mistakenly connected to him made me think he was a lot stuffier. This, and Luka and the Fire of Life, have been the funniest and cleverest books I’ve read this year. I hope you like Haroun!

  2. I just have to say that I have always hated it when teachers don’t seem to grasp that the entire point of reading a book is that everyone takes away something different. What’s the old saying – “no one reads the same book”? Reading is such a joy – it makes me sad to see so many kids in high school who graduate soured on the entire concept of reading because of an obnoxious teacher!

    At least your experience only left you hating one author (although apparently the wrong one!) 😀

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