Monday, 16 February 2015

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

In my typical way of not always respecting the order in which things were written, I read the follow-up book to Haroun and the Sea of Stories last year, and it came in as my second-favourite book of the year. Luka and the Fire of Life was one of those books that found a spot in my brain and nestled in like it had always belonged there.

So when I was suggesting a book to read for our book club, reading the first book to see if I liked it as much as the second was an easy choice. The verdict? It didn't hit me on as emotional a level as Luka did, but it was still delightful.

The delight started on the very first page, with the description of the city of sadness, and the glumfish, and it never really stopped. This is a man who knows how to weave stories, and how to weave stories together, and to delight in language. It really is sheer pleasure reading something this heady and charming, to throw yourself into an ocean of language and swim through the story and be swept along by currents that will take you in unexpected directions.

I keep using the word delightful. It's really the only word that applies.

In this book, Luka hasn't even been born yet. Haroun lives with his parents, Soraya and Rashid, and Rashid is at the height of his powers as the Shah of Blah. Is, that is, until his wife runs off with the next door neighbour. The next door neighbour not only left with Soraya, but he left a knife in Rashid's ribs with the phrase "what's the use of stories that aren't even true?"

That phrase, so simple, so perfectly turned, took my breath away. Because I live in stories, for stories, with stories. They sometimes feel like air, both in their necessity and ubiquity. Yet there are people who don't want stories, who decry them, who dismiss them, who look at the things that give meaning, and don't get it. Just simply don't get it.

Rashid loses his nerve, and his stories, and his son goes to get them back, ending up on the Sea of Stories just as it itself is under attack by those of silence instead of noise. Haroun must join an adventure to save the princess and stop the poison from attacking the stories, with the help of truly delightful (there's that word again!) companions along the way.

There's so much here. There's the prose, which is fantastic, the story which is engrossing, the deeper meanings of the story, which cut like a knife. I enjoyed it for the sheer pleasure, but it rewards thought as well.

There's a story to tell, though, about the experience of reading it. This is a book about the magic of stories, the messiness of prose, the necessity of enchantment. I got the copy I read out of the campus library. In the margins, someone had written notes. And not just notes, the most reductive, obvious notes you could possibly imagine, taking this magical book and making it just a story that isn't even true. I don't think they intended to, but oh, it made me sad.

It made me think of a piece of poetry from Billy Collins, a poet I quite adore. I just bought a collection of his works and only days before I read Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I had re-read a poem about teaching poetry. There are two salient stanzas, which read:

I want them to waterski   
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.

Reading those notes reminded me of this poem so strongly. Yet this is a story that you should be swept away by, not one to torture. To do so feels like exactly what Rushdie is telling a story against. It made me sad. In the end, it made me appreciate the magic of the words, because even those reductive notes could not make this into a story that isn't even true. It may not be factual. It is true.

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