Reading List Roundup: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie

Young Haroun lives in a sad city—one “so ruinously sad”, in fact, that it’s forgotten its name. His father Rashid is a prodigious storyteller, celebrated for his apparently limitless ability to spin witty yarns on the spot, which puts him much in demand in Sad City and wins him nicknames like “the Ocean of Notions”. But then Haroun’s mother gets fed up with her husband’s airy happy-go-luckiness and takes off with his exact antithesis: the oily, conniving and bureaucratic Mr. Sengupta, “a skinny, scrawny, measly, weaselly, snivelling clerical type”. “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” she grouses before flying the coop—a refrain which becomes a kind of leitmotif for weary adult pragmatism throughout the book.

And so begins an avalanche of increasingly wild and surreal events that turns out to be no less than a voyage into the center of the storytelling psyche—the Wellspring of the Sea of Stories.

“Haroun and the Sea of Stories” is of course rich in imagination—at times almost defiantly so—and it teems with strange and memorable characters and images that testify to a virtuosic creative mind at work. Within a few pages of the start, it plunges the reader into a fantasy world of such whack-a-mole vibrancy and surreally intricate texture as to have an almost synesthetic quality, as smells and colors and sounds seem to blur and merge and emerge with new-born intensities and meanings. Neologisms and odd poetic rhythms explode across the page, some annoying and some unforgettable (such as “P2C2E”, or Process Too Complicated To Explain, which becomes another leitmotif of sorts, this time for the inscrutability of technical-bureaucratic thinking). It also has the distinct advantage of having at least three characters named “Butt”.

Given this defiant high-spiritedness, its childlike directness and audacity, and its too-real-to-be-real vividness, I found myself wondering if “Haroun” might have originated as a treatment for animated or Pixar movie. But the last is impossible: “Haroun” was written five years before Toy Story launched the now-ubiquitous phenomenon of digital feature films.

But the connection with Pixar feels apt in another way, as probably the harshest criticism one could level against “Haroun” is that, in its very florid imaginativeness, it sometimes tips into a kind of literary version of the “uncanny valley”—a term for digital animations where the rendering is detailed enough for the characters to closely resemble real human beings, yet not detailed enough to make those peoples’ motions and expressions appear lifelike. The result is something that the mind sees neither as cartoon or person, but more like a zombie (see Zemeckis’s “The Polar Express” for some shudderingly creepy examples).

There are places in “Haroun”, then, where the reader will have time deciding whether they’re enjoying a light Saturday morning cartoon, or a coded vision of madness and menace. Examples range from creepy rhyming fish to manic robotic birds to a prince-rescues-princess story that goes grotesquely wrong to an evil black ship of darkness that begins to nightmarishly melt around our protagonists, not to mention the oddly sickening description of the “Disconnector Tool”, which plays a key role in the plot: “…it had the general outline of a wrench, but it was somehow more fluid than solid, and was made up of thousands of little veins flowing with differently coloured liquids…”

This uncanniness extends to most of “Haroun”s characters too. For all their number, color and antic fancy, most are paper-thin confections, robotic and often eerily repetitive in speech, giving no hint of development or subjective awareness.

All this may be another way of saying that “Haroun” is a deeper and darker work than it itself wants to be. So there is darkness and macabre aplenty in these story-waters, something like the books of Dr. Seuss, whose dizzying unsteady landscapes and grotesque, pained-looking creatures I always shied away from as a kid.

But then, maybe conjuring uncanniness was at least partly Mr. Rushdie’s intention. Part of the “uncanny valley” in “Haroun” might have to do with the fact that it seems to hit its deepest themes and reflections in considering (however fancifully) the relation of people to their own “shadows” (and even stories all have shadowy “anti-stories”). In “Haroun”, the shadows can even dominate:

“…in the Land of Chup, a Shadow very often has a stronger personality than the Person, or Self, or Substance to whom or to which it is joined! So often the Shadow leads, and it is the Person or Self or Substance that follows”.

As any Jungian would tell you, the Shadow is an archetype, representing the repressed negative contents of the personality—the “dark side” of ourselves that we don’t want to face. “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”, said Jung. And while Jung thought it crucial to face the shadow and own up to its contents, thus integrating the psyche, the super-villain of the story, khattam-Shud, has done the opposite, to an incredible extreme: “…he has done what no other Chupwala has ever dreamt of—that is, he has separated himself from his Shadow!”

In this light, it might be that this creepy uncanniness in “Haroun” is a kind of masterstroke, as it forms the “shadow” to the book’s otherwise blindingly illuminated surfaces.

Of course, this journey into darkness is a brief and vigorous one, winning straight through to a happy ending that, without spoiling too much, is so unabashedly formulaic that it somehow miraculously ends up being note-perfect.

And so, putting it together, “Haroun” is a madcap, ripping yarn—a manically irreverent, shimmery-shiny, somewhat unkempt (and proud of it, thank you), multi-billion-colored nose-thumbing at Disenchantment, Bureaucracy and Conformity in all its creeping forms. If you’re looking for an inoculant against the smug instrumental mundanity of our own times, against the little Mr. Sengupta in all of us that tries, now and then, to obstruct (or deconstruct) our own Sea of Stories, you could do far worse than to spend a few hours with this little volume.

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