Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Best Book to Read to Your Child, or to Yourself: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

A hoopoe in flight

When I was about eight or nine years old, my father and I realized that our tradition of reading together had to change. We had long left behind picture books, and he had little patience for the transitional books that are suggested for children of that age – books written for children who are just learning to read for themselves, books usually remarkable for their recycled narratives and limited vocabulary. Perhaps he had came across Haroun and the Sea of Stories in the time he'd spent traveling in the Middle East, or because it was the height of the Rushdie affair, or perhaps it was because, as a parent who was often away overseas, he wanted to read me a book written by an author who was separated from his own children. Either way, that was when I met Haroun.
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.
We read a chapter a night. Well, that was the maximum that we read – sometimes I fell asleep before we finished and we had to backtrack the next evening. I can’t count the number of times over the next five years that we started and finished the book. It entered into rotation (with Call of the Wild), so it must have been at least two or three times a year. Eventually, of course, we stopped reading together before bed. But I have returned to Haroun every few years. At first, in my pre-teen and early teenage years, I picked it up as a warm and comfortable old friend, full of characters I knew and lines that I remembered. It has always been the most constant of friends.

But, as I grew older, Haroun became a real friend – the kind who pushes you to think about things more deeply, who challenges your assumptions and who, over the length of a long and deep relationship, reveals more and more about themselves.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, in fact, its own Sea of Stories, an Ocean of Notions unto itself. It is a fairy tale, it is an adventure… but it is also about environmentalism, about sexism, and always, always, about the politics of oppression and speech. For adults (and for you parents who will read the book) it is probably all of these at once. But for a child, what begins as a fairy tale becomes a lesson, though perhaps a lesson they don’t recognize as such until they grow quite a bit older. (And the fact that it is not transparently moralistic is an enormous mark in its favour – there is nothing I recall being more frustrated with as a child than sloppy, obvious moralization thinly disguised as a narrative.) It is about the power of speech and communication, about the relationship between speech and oppression.
“How is it possible to fight a battle with all this chatter and natter?” Rashid wondered, perplexed. But then the armies rushed at each other; and Rashid saw, to his great surprise, that the Chupwalas were quite unable to resist the Guppees. The Pages of Gup, now that they had talked through everything so fully, fought hard, remained united, supported each other when required to do so, and in general looked like a force with a common purpose. All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship between them. The Chupwalas, on the other hand, turned out to be a disunited rabble …. many of them had to fight their own, treacherous shadows! …. their vows of silence and their habits of secrecy made them suspicious and distrustful of one another.
It is perhaps not surprising that this book was written by Salman Rushdie, a man who has spent his entire adult life at risk in the service of free speech, who wields magical realism like a heavily embroidered whip against forces of oppression, be they political, economic, or religious. Rushdie exploded into fame in 1988, with the publication of The Satanic Verses, a fictional, magical, sometimes-nightmarish text that included a number of… alternative… perspectives on the life of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. As a lifelong fan of Rushdie’s work, as someone who is willing to buy his works in hardcover as soon as they come out, who considers Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh, and potentially The Enchantress of Florence (I have a real soft spot for this book), as some of the most important literary works of the last century, I’m going to say something that I suspect many other hardcore Rushdie fans will silently agree with:

The Satanic Verses is the worst book he has ever written. Seriously. Don’t read it. Or rather, fine, read it – Rushdie at his worst is still in a class of his own. But absolutely, positively, DO NOT read it as an introduction to Rushdie’s oeuvre. The narrative is choppy, and the description is stilted… it is an immature work. And it is a work that would probably have received relatively little attention if the then-Ayatollah of Iran, Khomeini, had not felt compelled to condemn the book and issue a death sentence against Rushdie himself in 1989. (Midnight’s Children, one of Rushdie’s most complex and remarkable works, actually predates The Satanic Verses. But as is unfortunately so often the case, it wasn’t until the controversy arose that the literary world paid Midnight’s Children the attention it deserved.)

Author Salman Rushdie in 2012 (Photograph by Chris Young/AP)

As the result of Khomeini's 1989 decree, Rushdie immediately went into hiding, and he spent the next ten or so years of his life that way, separated and unable to see his son (Zafar, to whom Haroun is dedicated). For many years he hid in a basement in London, and it was during this period of his life that he wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories (originally published in the fall of 1990). Small wonder then, that it is a fairy tale to free speech, and that it makes a case, aimed at children, that one should run almost any risk in the name of freedom of expression.

And make no mistake – Haroun and the Sea of Stories is aimed at children, who without exception and with only a small effort on the part of the parent/reader reader will fall in love with the alliterations, the repetitions, and the tongue-twisting circumlocutions that vie the story a motion of its very own. Butt the Hoopoe may be one of the greatest adventure chaperones of all time, and parents will appreciate the fact that the Eggheads (yes, that is an intentional capitalization) are heroes, not to mention that the female Page of Gup has her own, important story, over the course of which she becomes valued for physical quickness and quickness of wit. Another female character, the Princess Batcheat (“that nose, those teeth, but we don’t need to get into that”) is a little more ambiguous for a number of reasons, but children will delight in her as well. (Note to parents: Rushdie’s quirky reflections on inherited monarchy may make you laugh out loud.)

At the moment I know a half-dozen parents who are searching for something to read to their children that won’t make them feel like their brains are turning to mush (there are only so many times you can read Everyone Poops without going lightly insane). Hence, it seemed like an appropriate time to let a wider audience of parent-Googlers know that there is another option out there for parents and children, a book of literary and pedagogical worth that adults and children can enjoy together.

But here is one of the secrets of Haroun: you don’t have to be a parent to enjoy it, any more than you need to be a child. This is a book for all readers, and for all dreamers. And the stories that it tells, like all of the streams of story in the Ocean of Notions, constantly shift and change, depending on how you read, who you are reading to or with, and even where you are reading it. On the third or fourth reading (or the eighth or ninth) you are still going to find something new. And the multiplicity of meanings that Rushdie evokes communicates the richness and power of language in a way that all readers, regardless of age, will cherish.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is available as an e-book from Amazon, but if you are planning on reading it to your child (or even just generally) I recommend a hard copy. This is a book that is going to stick with you for a while, and you may form an attachment to the edition that you read.

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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