Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Sea of Stories for the Holidays

As part of my holiday reading over the last week, I read a modern fairy tale by Salman Rushdie called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I’d read somewhere that Rushdie’s book drew from and paid tribute to the 1001 Arabian Nights, which is on my schedule for this new year, so it seemed a good time to fit it in. As it turns out, I heard echoes of many magical classics in the Sea of Stories, as well I should, since the Sea of Stories itself contains all stories.

The tone reminded me most of all of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which turns many familiar figurative phrases into literal situations. While Juster’s Milo jumps to the island of conclusions, Rushdie’s Haroun hears of Plentimaw fish and then finds that indeed there are Plentimaw fish in the sea. I also thought of Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book, which also has a library of all possible stories, a platonic realm of possibility turned physical. The Wizard of Oz came to mind as well since Haroun picks up a troupe of friends on his adventure – even including one made of metal.

I won’t even begin to name the ghosts of stories evoked by the plot of Haroun. In fact, it would be difficult to find a story without parallel to a book in which a boy comes of age, travels to the moon and learns its human and physical geography, fights darkness, rescues a princess, saves a world, and restores his father’s reputation. The book both contains and is contained by the Sea of Stories.

As for connections to the Arabian Nights, Rushdie’s tale has a genie, granted wishes, and references to the great Caliph Haroun-al-Rashid in the names of its hero and his father. But I didn’t come across any flying carpets or doors with magic passwords. But then I haven’t actually read the medieval classic, so maybe I’ll have more to say later this year.

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