An essay written for my Part 1 International Literature module.
'What is the use of stories that aren't even true?' Speculate on the seriousness of Haroun's question in relation to an analysis of any international 'stories'.
Long before Haroun can question the role of fiction, Rushdie has begun to give us his answer. In a 1991 interview with the poet James Fenton, Rushdie spoke of writing Haroun and the Sea of Stories partly in fulfilment of a promise to his son Zafar, 'that the next book I wrote would be one he might enjoy reading'.1 The story that Rushdie goes on to tell is clearly one that exists on a personal level as a gift to a child; one that is justified simply by their pleasure in reading it. However, Haroun has a broader purpose. It is offered to anyone and everyone capable of reading it, in the hope that they will find it enjoyable, but, paradoxically, deals with the precise state of affairs where a child's innate love of fantasy has been blighted by doubt. The negative effects of literal minded cynicism become evident as the question; 'What is the use of stories that aren't even true?' spreads through Rashid's world, polluting his marriage, his parental role, before finally poisoning his inner creativity.
Like many a fairy tale, Haroun explores complex moral and philosophical questions in a simple way. What sets Haroun apart is it intriguing self-referentiality in approaching the concept of the fictional narrative and its facility in connecting this with the problems of the real world. The multifaceted function of the story is made evident by the acrostic reference to his son Zafar that appears as a dedication:
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.
The poem evokes a sense of romantic potentiality, attaches to it a suggestion of risk, before showing the acceptance of human creativity as a source of union; a series of events that bears a strong similarity with the story as a whole. While the story goes on to retain the romantic reverence of imagination, partly through continued references to Coleridge, the threat that is involved in one's feats of self-expression becomes much more immediate. The attack on free speech; 'the greatest power of all' (119) which pervades the entire story is personified, firstly in the contemptible Mr Sengupta and then by Khattam-Shud, the embodiment of silence and negation. Consequently, the entire story can be viewed as a conflict in which the opposed paradigms of creativity and artistic desolation are pitted against one another. Moreover, an incisive touch of human psychology comes when both sets of attitudes assert themselves in the manner of an ideal:
'But why do you hate stories so much?' Haroun blurted, feeling stunned. 'Stories are fun?'
'The world, however, is not for Fun,' Khattam-Shud replied. 'The world is for controlling.' (161)
This reminds us that what appears a self-evident moral truth to one person may be heresy to another - this does not imply an acceptance of the contrary view; when Mr Sengupta is described as having 'no imagination at all' (22), it is given as a compliment because when Soraya gave it, it was seen by her as a positive attribute.
The nature of the conflict, in its involvement with free speech and repressive regimes, is such that the allusions to the real world can now be read as socio-political allegory, thereby reminding us that stories are the product of both fact and fiction. The novel can be read as a coded account of Rushdie's personal predicament after the fatwa, in which he sought reunion with his family and his craft.
Glossaries aside, it is hard not to associate Khattam-Shud with Khomeini, Rushdie's own persecutor, who demanded that Rushdie face the eternal silence of death. Similarly, the Chupwala army's encampment of 'black tents' (101) is evocative of the military identities of Islamic fundamentalist countries such as Iran, and Bezaban, the idol they worship, the 'colossus carved out of black ice' (101), seems representative of the sacred Black Stone in the Ka'bah at the centre of Mecca. Such imagery serves as a challenge against Rushdie's persecutors but the irony of their usage in a children's novel is that they are more direct than the obscurer offences of The Satanic Verses, the very publication which precipitated the fatwa.
Despite its legitimacy, the allegorical reading still risks being reductive. Haroun is a story about itself, about the need and the capacity of human beings to communicate with each other, across time and across cultures. It is more complex than a simple division between a fictional function aimed at children and a factual one designed for adults, precisely because it blurs the boundaries that delineate the hierarchy of maturity. One of the messages that is implicit in Haroun is that children who are forced to take control of their own destinies, as the result of the failures of adults, end up growing up themselves:
'Children blame themselves for the misfortunes that befall the adults in their lives. It is a place to write from. A terrible thing happens to a father, the child blames himself and wishes to rescue the father. And in the novel not just the father, but the whole world, while he's doing it, and why not?'2
The notion of the child's capacity to influence global events contributes to the political dimension of the story because it allows the initiative of the individual to triumph over the inadequacies of the established order. However, the integration of child and adult roles within the story suggests that the political and non-political readings are also complementary and that a more pervasive cultural message is contained with the story's design. Although the relatively muted response to the release of Haroun can be attributed to its status as a children's story, it is also significant that the tale manages to circumscribe the bitter disputes of contemporary society within a mocking world of pantomime-like grotesques that even a child can transcend by seeing the sense of unity.
Symbolically, it is the Sea of Stories itself that lies at the centre of the novel. It exists as a power positive image, not only of free speech, but of cultural identity, as is shown when its source is found:
...as Haroun watched, the glowing flow of pure, unpolluted stories came bubbling up from the very heart of the Kshsni. There were so many Streams of story, of so many different colours, all pouring out of the Source at once, that it looked like a huge underwater fountain of shining white light. (167)
The relationship at work displays an idealised vision of society, whereby different strands are conceived in terms of individual qualities but are seen to work together as a congruent whole. Moreover, the assertion that 'new stories are born from old - it is the new combinations that make them new', (86) suggests that artistic posterity and social harmony are synonymous. The corruption that Mr Sengupta brings to Haroun's domestic life is similar to the 'thick, dark poison' (146) that Khattam-Shud dispenses; it denies diversity and insists on reality, all for personal gain.
A more comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of separation is offered by Mudra, the shadow warrior. Haroun first observes him 'fighting against his own shadow' (123), a memorable image that initially seems to signify disintegration and the perversion of the multi-dimensionality of experience. However, after a little consideration, the spectacle is recognised as an emblem of social union:
And as they fought each other, standing toe to toe, Haroun began to think of their combat as a dance of great beauty and grace, a dance danced in perfect silence, because the music was playing inside the dancers' heads. (124)
This implies that basic oppositions are often balanced with equally basic connections and that these must be sustained in order to avoid either stagnation or oppression in society: "'If the Guppees and Chupwalas didn't hate each other so,' he thought, 'they might actually find each other pretty interesting. Opposites attract, as they say'" (125) The true evil in Rushdie's story is not the harmless ritual combat that Mudra engages in, but rather the unnatural act of division that Kattam-Shud has achieved, whereby 'he has separated himself from his shadow' (133). This demonstrates that greed, when taken to its most single-minded extreme, will ignore all boundaries of culture, morality and even physics. As before, the attempt to deny the fundamental principles of union and creation are related to forms of social decay:
'Furthermore, this new, doubled Khattam-Shud, this man-shadow and shadow-man, has had a very harmful effect on the friendships between Chupwalas and their Shadows. Now many Shadows are resentful of being joined to Chupwalas at the feet; and there are many quarrels. (133)
It is the principle of division itself, the systematic and destructive separation of complementary concepts which Rushdie locates the real 'poison' and which, ultimately, he wishes to oppose. Rushdie's response takes the unimpeachable form of the fantastic made 'real' within the confines of a literary fantasy. 'No ifs, no buts'; the standard parental response to a child's questioning of authority becomes incorporated into the story in the forms of Iff, the Water Genie, and Butt, the Hoopoe. The entire story is driven by a sense of potentiality in aspiration and through its self-referential nature, it can produce the mandatory happy ending, while preventing any claims of naivety:
'Nonsense,' retorted the Walrus. 'I know perfectly well what you want. You've been on a great adventure, and at the end of great adventures everybody wants the same thing.'
'Oh? And what's that?' asked Haroun, a little belligerently.
'A happy ending?' the Walrus said. That shut him up. (201)
Surely, in the context of opposing the evils of the real world, the purpose of narrative is to grant the reader a happy ending. It is true that happy endings need not always accompany the brutalities of reality, but in children's literature, it is arguable that they are something of a requisite. However, even this line of speculation seems to miss the point. It is vital to the Rushdie's method that Haroun should function fully as both a story for children and for adults, a story born from both imagination and from reality, so that the complete work can find potency in their interplay. His partition enables him to belittle his opponents with the sheer affront of a 'happy ending', while admitting that, however similar the respective solutions are, the true problems this world are not so easily vanquished.
Haroun captivates its entire readership by enabling its children and its adults to switch places; their differences are acknowledged but become insignificant in comparison with their similarities. A similar ethos is applied to all the other parallels and dichotomies of the story: light and dark, silence and noise, fact and fiction; they all come to resemble the existence of Mudra and his shadow, wherein the point at which the two touch is cause for celebration. Time and again, we are told that the integration of opposites will be rewarded with social harmony and artist delight and that a little imagination is all that is needed to begin. Rushdie uses his story to demonstrate that the narrative is not concerned with securing its own continuity but ours.
1: James Fenton, 'Keeping up with Salman Rushdie' p31
2: ibid p32
Cundy, C. (1996) Salman Rushdie, Manchester University Press
Fenton, J. (1991) 'Keeping Up with Salman Rushdie', New York Review of Books
Grant, D. (1999) Writers And Their Work: Salman Rushdie, Northcote House Publishers
Rushdie, S. (1990) Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Granta Books (All page numbers are taken from this edition.)