My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Haroun and the Sea of Stories (2013) by Salman Rushdie is followed in the same book by Luka and the Fire of Life (2013) if the reader flips the book over and begins on page one—in essence, the reader gets two beautiful storybooks for the price of one.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories was first published in 1990 and Luka and the Fire of Life in 2010, but in 2013 the two stories reverse-bookend each other and make for a wonderfully accessible and enlightening book to read to children before bedtime.
The earlier of the two and dedicated to Rushdie’s son Zafar, Haroun and the Sea of Stories begins in sadness and separation.
The Shah of Blah, a storyteller and father named Rashid Khalifa, loses his ability to tell stories when his wife Soraya stops singing and later runs away with another woman’s husband, a shady little man named Mr Sengupta who would whisper to Soraya and Haroun, the son of Rashid and our hero for the tale, would overhear:
“‘That husband of yours, excuse me if I mention,’ [Mr Sengupta] would start in his thin winy voice. ‘He’s got his head stuck in the air and his feet off the ground. What are all these stories? Life is not a storybook or joke shop. All this fun will come to no good. What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?’” (p 6-7)
Poor Haroun watches as his mother suddenly and callously flees with Mr Sengupta and leaves Rashid rejected and heartbroken. Haroun, devastated, begins to ask that same question which presents the book’s ultimate theme: “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”
Later, while on a business trip, Rashid loses his ability to tell stories. Then one night in their hotel room, Haroun catches a Water Genie named Iff in the bathroom as the magical being attempts to cut off the source to Rashid’s storytelling for good:
“‘Anybody can tell stories,’ Iff replied. ‘Liars, and cheats, and crooks, for example. But for stories with that Extra Ingredient, ah, for those, even the best storytellers need the Story Waters. Storytelling needs fuel, just like a car; and if you don’t have the Water, you just run out of Steam’” (p 45).
Later that night, Iff the Water Genie is outwitted by the clever Haroun and is forced to take them to Gup City where Haroun hopes to meet the Walrus and get the tap turned back on so that the stories can flow from the Ocean of the Streams of Story back to Rashid once more. But along the way, Haroun keeps asking himself: What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?
However, war rages between Gup City and the Chupwalas and Haroun finds that the Ocean of the Stream of Story is being polluted by the Chups, who seek to bring eternal darkness to this storyland.
“‘Gup is bright and Chup is dark,’” Haroun reflects as he watches a Shadow Warrior’s martial dance, “‘Gup is warm and Chup is freezing cold. Gup is all chattering and noise, whereas Chup is silent as a shadow. Guppees love the Ocean, Chupwalas try to poison it. Guppees love Stories, and Speech; Chupwalas, it seems, hate these things just as strongly.’ It was a war between Love (of the Ocean, or the Princess) and Death (which was what Cultmaster Khattam-Shud had in mind for the Ocean, and for the Princess, too)” (p 111).
There is a sense that Rushdie—which comes to no surprise—has bigger plans than to tell a simple children’s tale, which holds allusions to censorship and political strife through control and absolute dictatorial rule. By the end, Haroun comes face-to-face with the villain of the story, Khattam-Shud, a twisted representation of Mr Sengupta and “the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself…The End” (p 26),
“‘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 if for Controlling.’
“‘Which world?’ Haroun made himself ask.
“‘Your world, my world, all worlds,’ came the reply. ‘They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why’” (p 147).
Our Hero Haroun has a much bigger job of defeating the monster Khattam-Shud and saving his father than one little boy can do. But in storybooks, as children come to know, and unlike what often transpires in the real world, anything can happen.
Regardless of the end, because stories and lives do have an end—even if people still talk about them long after the end has come and gone—Haroun returns home to find that his sad, miserable city that had forgotten its own name has now remembered its names and things are looking a bit brighter and happier—albeit a rain is flooding his native city—than before his great adventure:
“‘Kahani,’ said the policeman brightly as he floated off down the flooded street. ‘Isn’t it a beautiful name for a city? It means “story”, you know’” (p 196).
That’s where we will leave Haroun for now as we follow his little brother Luka on his journey to steal the Fire of Life from the gods.
Dedicated to Rushdie’s son Milan, Luka and the Fire of Life begins when Luka curses the Grandmaster Flame of a roaming circus because of the Grandmaster’s cruelty to the animals. But something goes horribly wrong or terribly right when Luka’s words hold a hidden power:
“When he looked out of his bedroom window he saw the Great Tent was on fire, burning brightly in the field by the river’s edge. The Great Rings of Fire were ablaze; and it was not an illusion. Luka’s curse had worked…
“And later that day it was Luka’s brother Haroun who had the last word. ‘I knew it would happen soon,’ he said. ‘You’ve reached the age at which people in this family cross the border into the magical world. It’s your turn for an adventure—yes, it’s finally here!—and it certainly looks like you’ve started something now. But be careful. Cursing is a dangerous power. I was never able to do anything so—well—dark’” (p 7).
The Grandmaster takes his revenge on poor Luka late one night when the Grandmaster curses Luka’s father Rashid, who begins to slip and creep inwardly toward death.
With help from Bear the Dog and Dog the Bear, Luka must save his father by traveling into the World of Magic and on the Torrent of Words which “thunders down from the Sea of Stories into the Lake of Wisdom, whose waters are illumined by the Dawn of Days, and out of which flows the River of Time…The Lake of Wisdom, as is well known, stands in the shadow of the Mountain of Knowledge at whose summit burns the Fire of Life” (p 10-11).
Along the way—which turns out to be like a video game granting Luka with hundreds of lives to spare as he’s blasted and killed many times over—Luka meets his guide and a copy of his father Nobodaddy, the riddling Old Man of the River, the American professor riding in a DeLorean sports car, Hank Morgan, the wizard Merlin, two Elephant Birds, the Insultana of Ott, the Flying Carpet of King Solomon, Nuthog the Dragon, a replica of the Grandmaster named Captain Aag, Kishimojin, Xochiquetzal, Mylitta, Aphrodite, and the giant Humbaba from Assyria of long ago.
As Luka faces certain defeat against all the gods and the Aalim (Past, Present and Future) protecting the Fire of Life in the Heart of Magic, he recalls what his father Rashid, the Shah of Blah, had told him one night:
“Dreams are the Aalim’s enemies, because in dreams the Laws of Time disappear. We know—don’t we know, Luka?—that the Aalim’s Laws do not tell the truth about Time. The time of our feelings is not the same as the time of the clocks. We know that when we are excited by what we are doing, Time speeds up, and when we are bored, it slows down. We know that at moments of great excitement or anticipation, at wonderful moments, Time can stand still.
“Our dreams are the real truths—our fancies, the knowledge of our hearts. We know that Time is a River, not a clock, and that it can flow the wrong way, so that the world becomes more backward instead of less, and that it can jump sideways, so that everything changes in an instant. We know that the River of Time can loop and twist and carry us back to yesterday or forwards to the day after tomorrow.
“There are places in the world where nothing ever happens, and Time stops moving altogether…There are those of us who learn to live completely in the moment. For such people the Past vanishes and the Future loses meaning. There is only the Present, which means that two of the three Aalim are surplus to requirement. And there are those of us who are trapped in yesterdays, in the memory of a lost love, or a childhood home, or a dreadful crime. And some people live only for a better tomorrow; for them the Past ceases to exist” (p 189-190).
With the Fire of Life in hand Luka must overcome the three Aalim if he ever wants to get back to the real world and save his father. But it is Nobodaddy who gives some of the truest advice which sums up Rushdie’s two fantasy stories best:
“You of all boys,” Nobodaddy tells Luka, “should know that Man is the Storytelling Animal, and that in stories are his identity, his meaning and his lifeblood. Do rats tell tales? Do porpoises have narrative purposes? Do elephants ele-phantasise? You know as well as I do that they do not. Man alone burns with books” (p 40).
Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life burn with deeper lessons children can learn about stories, books, fantasy, imagination, censorship, brotherly and fatherly love, courage, bravery, and to help these same children do what children need to do most: to believe in themselves—as must we all.
So we have come to the end, to the great Khattam-Shud of this piece, where I leave you, dear reader, with one final question, or riddle, until next time: What’s the use of all these stories that aren’t even true?
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 440,000+ followers