A Fantastic Essay on Writing
This is perhaps Rushdie’s most accessible book, ostensibly a children’s fairy tale, set in a fantasy world far away. An Indian man and local celebrity, Rashid, is ruined when he suddenly loses his ability to entertain people by spinning fabulous stories. The loss occurred when his ambitious wife left him, despairing, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” This question recurs several times in the book and is its thematic core. Rashid’s young son, Haroun, vows to save his father and embarks on a heroic journey to another land, where the sea of stories lies, the source of all stories, past, present, and future. A tribe of anti-nonsense, bureaucratic-type beings has been poisoning the sea of stories, so that people will focus on important things. Haroun’s adventures in this fantastic land are vivid and unforgettable, involving mechanical birds, shadow warriors, a great ark, floating gardeners, and much more. The tale, and the wonderful imagery, recalls Dorothy’s experience in the land of Oz, but with the bonus of fantastic, poetic, and playful language from Rushdie.
On another level, though, the story can be read as an essay describing the process of creative writing. The sea of stories is the source of creativity, and it does seem like it is in another land, or even, on the moon, as it is in Rushdie’s story. A writer only hopes to sample its waters, and when, suddenly, inexplicably, the creative waters are not flowing, it feels like the sea has become poisoned. On his way to rescue the creative process, Haroun’s understanding is repeatedly frustrated when he is told, by several magical characters that the process is too complicated to explain, or P2C2E, as it is called in the story. He discovers a warrior who fights with his own shadow, often becoming confused over who is the warrior and who is the shadow, and writers of creative fiction will recognize that feeling of confusion as an author struggles within himself to develop a fictional character.
Throughout the novel, these sly allusions delight the tuned-in reader, so even as a child enjoys the story as a fantastic adventure, the savvy writer will enjoy the humorous essay on the vicissitudes of the process of writing fiction, a process that is, in the end, a P2C2E.
At a third level of analysis, the story has another message, the answer to the question, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Rushdie’s answer is the story itself: We want, we need, stories that aren’t even true for the sake of the pure joy of creativity, which is a part of the human spirit. He wrote this book while he was in hiding from a death threat, or “fatwa” issued by the ayatollah in Iran because of his earlier book, “The Satanic Verses.” When humorless people are trying to kill you, perhaps silliness and satire are the best response.