“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 in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that look like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by 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, 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 celebrate, World Book Day, I wanted to write about a children’s book that I loved reading this year.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was such a joyful read. The opening gripped me, I loved the idea of a city living on glumfish and the Moody Land where the landscape changes to reflect the emotions of the people currently present in it. I read it in an Angler’s cottage surrounded by fishy objects on a grey February day. You could really believe that people could live on glumfish!
The words bounce along building a picture of a magical world vividly. It tells the story of Haroun who wants to help his father, Rashid, rediscover how to tell stories. This leads Haroun on an amazing adventure to the Sea of Stories complete with water genies, houseboats, mechanical hoopoes, kingdoms, princesses and princes.
There are some gorgeous characters throughout the book. I especially love the plentimaw fishes, giant angelfish, who constantly ingest the stories conveyed by the sea, speak in rhyme and mate for life. Mali, the floating gardener made up of interwoven vines and plants is also a lovely character. His job is to prevent stories from becoming convoluted and cut away weeds on the ocean’s surfaces. Yes, there is even an environmental sidestory when they stop the sea from becoming polluted.
At the heart of the book though, it is a book about stories and storytelling.
At the start, Haroun asks his father “what’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” By the end of the book, you are convinced that stories matter whether they are true or magical. “He knew what he knew: that the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.” We all need stories whether we believe them or not to help us understand the world around us.
The sea of stories is from the title of an 11th century collection of Indian legends, Kathasaritsagara, the Story-Stream Sea or the Ocean of the Streams of Story. In Haroun, the sea contains all the stories ever invented flowing in intertwining streams and occasionally they get muddled. I love this idea that storytelling is this organic, living process with a life of its own. The story wants to be told but might find its way into several streams first. I have always thought that the best worlds in books are ones you don’t want to leave and can imagine your own adventures in.
Throughout Haroun, there are many funny jokes, sayings and elements woven from other classic stories throughout. Part of the joy for me in the book was spotting references to 1001 Arabian Nights, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz and even The Egg Men and The Walrus from the Beatles. As the Water Genie, Iff, is keen to tell Haroun:
“Nothing comes from nothing, Thieflet; no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old–it is the new combinations that make them new.”
Storylines, archetypes and narratives are remade, retold and reversioned for new audiences. A lot of people can get a bit sniffy about whether things are “original” or truly great writing without missing the point about stories. Stories are meant to be living breathing things that are always remixed. Storytelling is based on an oral living folk tradition, where stories merge and evolve and new ideas mix with the familiar.
People (and particularly children) like repetition – it makes us feel safe. A lot of children’s classics have repetitive formats, familiar imagery and characters to help children learn. Familiar ideas help children understand where they are in the story and act as reference points to the world around them. I think this is why series fiction is popular – we understand the rules, we can decode the tropes and importantly we can predict sometimes what will happen next. This is comforting. Like the lamppost in the Narnia forest, there are markers of things you recognise so you can feel at home and secure enough to explore the new fictional world. And like Narnia, you can return again and again without treading the exact same path.
Good writing mixes classic elements with new ideas in different combinations and makes it seem effortless. The Dark Materials trilogy borrows from William Blake and Milton’s Paradise Lost, JK Rowling borrows from just about everyone but that doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of Harry Potter. What I love in Haroun is that the inter-texuality is so blatant and joyous.
Finally, the backstory for Haroun is lovely. It was the first book that Rushdie wrote following the Fatwa and he was suffering serious writer’s block. The book started because he promised his son he’d write a book for him and it started as stories he told his son in the bath. He would take a mug and dip it into the bath, pretend to sip from it and find a new story to tell. There is something really poignant in the book about Rushdie writing a book at this time about a son helping his sad father find his stories once more and wanting a happy ending.
“Happy endings are much rarer in stories, and also in life, than most people think. You could say they are the exceptions, not the rule.”
In a very dark time, from the bathtime of stories came this lovely happy book. I think that is quite magical in itself.
Happy World Book Day!