The following is an excerpt from the presentation I made earlier this week for my seminar on (Post)Colonial Geographies with Professor Sandeep Banerjee at McGill University.
The young protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s children’s fantasy novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories asks his father Rashid Khalifa, a great storyteller better known as the Shah of Blah, or the Ocean of Notions, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22) Upon being asked this question Rashid falls silent and finds “he had run out of stories to tell” (22).
So begins Haroun’s great quest to restore his father’s gift for storytelling, a journey that will take him all the way to the Sea of Stories, which is being poisoned by a dark lord named Khattam-Shud, “the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself” (79). On the way, Haroun meets an array of quirky characters who become his allies, including Iff the water genie and Butt the hoopoe bird (who don’t tolerate Ifs or Buts!). Haroun flies to Kahani, an invisible moon that shadows the visible one. There he travels the Sea of Stories to Gup City, capital of a kingdom of story-loving blabbermouths on Kahani who are at war against the Chupwalas, or “quiet fellows” (215), led by Khattam-Shud. He must help the kingdom rescue the princess Batcheat from the dark side of the planet, where the Chupwalas are poisoning the Streams of Story.
The Sea of Stories is a representation of intertextuality and the war between Gups and Chups is a battle over that initial question: “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (22). While the Chups are represented as bureaucratic functionaries interested in utility instead of fables, the Gups are defenders of the Sea. In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute writes an entry devoted exclusively to the idea of an Ocean of Story. Somadeva, a Kashmiri poet, collected various stories in the eleventh century in the Katha Sarit Sagara—“a kind of encyclopedia of story types” (704). The English translation by Norman Penzer is the ten-volume anthology The Ocean of Story (1924-8). Like The Arabian Nights, The Ocean of Story influenced Rushdie. Clute takes the notion of the “Ocean of Story” to refer “to the current critical understanding that almost every traditional STORY exists in multiple versions; that it is exceedingly difficult to sort these versions into chaste stemmata” (704). Stories interpenetrate each other in patterns that defy linearity. Rushdie describes this effectively in his description of the Sea of the Streams of Story:
“it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. […] the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves […] It was not dead but alive” (72).
The Sea is an intertextual body of water. However, when the Chups, who disbelieve in the utility of Story, poison the Sea, these Streams of Stories, about rescued princesses, for example, become scrambled and filled with horrors, until they are meaningless. Haroun’s mission is to stop the poison and let the Sea replenish itself.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories opens in Rashid and Haroun’s home in the Valley of K, in a “sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name” (15). Rashid mentions that the Valley of K used to be called “Kosh-Mar,” which is from the language of “Franj, which is no longer spoken in these parts” (40). A cauchemar in French is a nightmare, but it also sounds like câche-mer, or “the place that hides a Sea” (40). This nightmare-country is full of “sadness factories” and “ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts,” a magical image of an unevenly developed social reality. Mr. Sengupta, who is a clerk working for the City Corporation, “hated stories and storytellers” even though Rashid has a use in society: “the politicos needed Rashid to help them win the people’s votes” because he gains the people’s confidence by admitting “everything he told them was completely untrue” (20). As far as Rashid is concerned, the falseness of stories is what makes them useful.
Trouble starts, however, when Mr. Sengupta runs off with Rashid’s wife Soraya, spurring the initial question asked by Haroun. The rest of this book review essay is an inquiry into this question: what use are false stories? Rushdie intimately connects the prospect of storytelling and art to the Khalifas’ desire for their home town’s improvement, suggesting that art may indeed have a significant use—inspiring social change.
First, thought, I would like to speak more particularly about one intertext in particular that is involved in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun meets two talking and singing guppy fish in the Sea. Their names are Goopy and Bagha, a male and a female fish, but their names are taken from the male protagonists of Satyajit Ray’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). This Bengali film is furthermore based on a short story written by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray, who participated in a Bengali cultural renaissance, according to Wikipedia.
The film explores the redemptive and magical power of art. The film begins with Gopinath, seen as eccentric in his village for his love of the tanpura and his avoidance of hand labour, being exiled by the local king. On the road he meets Bagha, a drummer, and they both adopt the title ‘Bayen,’ meaning musician. Encountering a tiger in the forest, they are saved by a band of ghosts, who then grant them three boons: clothing and food, the ability to travel, and the ability to entertain. Goopy and Bagha gain the favour of the King of Shundi, whose peasant population is stricken dumb by an epidemic, similar to how the Chupwalas are speechless in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Using magic to subvert the Empire of Halla’s attempt to invade Shundi, Goopy and Bagha capture the King of Halla, who is the good King’s long lost brother. Soon after the people of Shundi have their speech restored, thanks to a magic potion. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as in Goopy Gyne Bagha Bynne, the power of art—storytelling and music—is seen as highly redemptive, inspiring social change and peace.
John Clute makes the connection between Story and music in works of fantasy more explicit:
“In modern fantasy, when they are performing their task, protagonists or COMPANIONS who are musicians […] tend to become LIMINAL BEINGS, and articulate in memorable form the relationship between different levels of being in the world. They put into a form […] some version of the essential STORY being enacted, which may be memorized, or followed, or obeyed” (673).
Goopy and Bagha embody this role in the film. They mediate the social relations between the lower classes and the upper classes as well as between the Kingdoms of Shundi and Halla. Furthermore each of their actions move the story towards the fairy-tale ending that culminates in their royal marriages to the daughters of the Kings of Shundi and Halla. This happy ending represents the healing of the brokenness of the land and alludes to the potential founding of a utopia in the new union between the kingdoms.
Yet what use is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a story that is not even true? What use is Haroun and the Sea of Stories? What use are the ageless fairy tales that lay behind these modern forms? To the literary scholar, it is useful to consider how such “essential” stories are in fact mediating the historical moment and the social relations that produced them (Clute 673). But literary scholars are not the typical audience of such books. How could there be a social benefit from these stories, which do not even offer accurate, realist representations of social reality? Is magical realism and fantasy a mystification, a distraction?
The question I would like to direct our attention to can be whittled down to the following: do Ray and Rusdie affirm the possibility that immaterial labour, which is what storytelling arguably is, can bring about a utopia? Do the stories themselves have any agency, or is the potential for social revolution limited to the labours of the artist?
It is useful to think of these ideas, consulting two theorists: Walter Benjamin and Frederic Jameson.
Walter Benjamin in “The Author as Producer” invites us to consider the author’s position is society rather than, say, the attitude of the artist or his/her text towards the relations of production, which are defined by capitalism and comodification (222). The movie and the children’s novel are part of a real social system. Furthermore, they are disseminating a representation of a pair of musicians and an old storyteller who must survive within the social milieu of their own fictional society. Benjamin argues that a revolutionary writer is in effect counterrevolutionary if he or she has a mere attitude of solidarity with the proletariat, but not in terms of his or her position as a producer (226). Though the author may belong to a higher, privileged class by virtue of education, he/she can still use this education to help the working class.
Rushdie’s position within society as an intellectual embedded in the capitalist system of the book market seems to be at odds with the theme of social restoration in his novel. However, perhaps Rushdie has done as much as he can do while still embedded in the system of capitalism. At any rate, it seems rather clear that capitalism helps in the dissemination of Haroun and the Sea of Stories and the in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne‘s wide distribution. The relationship between artist and capitalism is not necessarily limited to the notion of ‘selling out.’
Frederic Jameson is a historical materialist theorist of utopia and science fiction. One of his theories, which he expresses in “The Politics of Utopia,” is that representations of utopia mediate the current social structure of the society that produces that representation. This simply means that when you read a utopia–for example, the society in Divergent–it says more about the society that imagined the utopia than it does about the possibility of actually realizing it.
Looking at Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I speculate that it is partly Rushdie’s reaction against the fatwa uttered against him by Ayatollah Khomeni for his writing of The Satanic Verses, which he published just before Haroun. Are we talking about a utopian society more accepting of fable, dreams, and the value of untruth? Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, on the other hand, might be a comment on the utopian horizon India imagined for itself at the beginning of the rise of its national film industry, which is nowadays in competition with Hollywood.
Both Rushdie’s book and Ray’s film are works that celebrate culture and imagine the greatest possible society will arise in a world that tolerates, sponsors, and embraces the arts and all that art represents. But in the unequal distribution of power in the global market and between the classes of society, can cultural utopia–not the existence of one but the existence of a representation of one, which might be all that is possible with the concept of utopia–change our lived, socio-economic reality?
I highly doubt that it can do so on its own. But by inspiring people to be agents of change, I think these authors are trying to suggest that it can.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Author As Producer.” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Transl. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Shocken, 1978.
Clute, John and John Grant. “Music” and “Ocean of Story.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Jameson, Frederic. “The Politics of Utopia.” New Left Review 25 (2004): 35-54.
Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories: A Novel. London: Granta, 1990.