Sea of Signposts

Haroun and the Sea of StoriesHaroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hurrah for diverse books, before I say another word. I loved how this book drew on Pakistani/Muslim stories and imagery, and I enjoyed the company of its young protagonist. I’m sure younger readers will too. I was interested to see how Rushdie would adapt his style, and it seems he did so by indulging his taste for cliché and word play as much and as fantastically as possible. The magic in this fantasy yarn is all rooted in language; figures of speech come to life and behave unpredictably, metaphors become literal, and the whole lot gets an embroidery of tasty colloquialisms. I think that’s why I found it a bit overcooked, a little bit too self conscious.

Another reason it seems self conscious is perhaps its transparent agenda; it’s a parable in defense of freedom of speech. The righteous army argue about their orders extensively. The General loves a good debate, he’s delighted to listen to the discussion. Finally they all proceed with commitment. Ace! Orwell wrote about the same thing happening in real life in Homage to Catalonia – no discipline problems. As well as the right of citizens to dissent and challenge authority, Rushdie wants the rights of storytellers to tell it their way to be sacrosanct, severely rebuking attempts at political interference. And quite right too!

But when the story is so openly didactic, the writer ought, I feel, to be careful about other things too. I’ve written about Rushdie’s male-oriented but creative writing of gender before, but here it strikes me as simply sloppy. I waited over 100 pages for an interesting female character, and I liked her when she arrived, but she had heavy work against the sexism of her culture and even against her author to make up for the barely-written faithless wife, the damsel in distress used for light relief (although Haroun challenged it rather weakly and ambiguously – but what is with this purity-of-fairytales angle? Seriously needed work!) and the mockery of Princess Batcheet for her physical attributes.

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