Rushdie's Fables of Truth and Fantasy

`BUT why do you hate stories so much?'' the young hero of Salman Rushdie's fairy-tale novel asks the arch-villain Khattam-Shud. ``Stories are fun...'' ``The world,'' replies Khattam-Shud (whose name in Hindustani means completely finished, over and done with), `` not for Fun. The world is for Controlling.'' And as Khattam-Shud well knows, stories contain imaginative worlds that resist control.

Few writers are better equipped than Rushdie to write a book-length fable on the war between words and death. And a fable is perhaps the perfect vehicle for expressing some basic truths about speech, storytelling, and the imagination, because it embodies the spirit of playfulness that makes talking, arguing, writing, and reading ``fun.''

The hero of ``Haroun and the Sea of Stories'' lives with his cheerful family in the depths of a sad city. Haroun's father, Rashid, is a famous storyteller, whose work is in demand, especially by politicians who need him to help get people's votes: ``Nobody ever believed anything a politico said, even though they pretended as hard as they could that they were telling the truth. (In fact, this was how everyone knew they were lying.) But everyone had complete faith in Rashid, because he always admitted that everything he told them was completely untrue and made up out of his own head.''

Rashid is about to go off on a storytelling tour, when his once-happy wife leaves him for someone more down-to-earth. The unkindest cut, however, comes when Haroun asks his father, ``What's the use of stories that aren't even true?''

Upon hearing these words, Rashid's heart is broken and his storytelling ability simply dries up. Haroun feels it's now up to him to rescue his father and put things right. This he does in a sequence of fantastic adventures that take him to Kahani, the earth's second moon (which travels at too great a speed to be observed), which is where stories ``come from.''

Kahani's beautiful Sea of Stories is being poisoned by a mysterious pollution that turns its richly variegated streams a dull, muddy, uniform black. The cheerful, talkative Guppees, who inhabit the half of Kahani that's always in daylight, are under attack by the silent, shadowy Chupwalas, who live in perpetual night.

Although the narrative is clearly on the side of the Guppees and the forces of light, it also accords the Chupwalas their due. These shadow warriors speak in a language of gestures that has a grace and dignity of its own. There is an attraction of opposites between the two kingdoms of speech and silence, day and night. Haroun's quest becomes a fight to restore balance rather than a war to destroy the other side, and in the end, the old balance is replaced by a new spirit of interchange.

This is a fable with a timely message told in such a way as to reveal its timelessness. Rushdie's propensity for wry fantasy and comic word-play finds an ideal outlet in this mode, and his brand of wit, often more bumptious than charming, is more than usually engaging here: precisely the right tone to appeal to both children and adults. The language is replete with rhymes and rhythms that should make it a pleasure to read aloud. ``Haroun and the Sea of Stories'' is an eloquent defense of the truth of fiction and the value of the freedom to imagine that Haroun calls ``fun.''

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