Rushdie and the Romantics: Intertextual Politics in Haroun and the Sea of Stories

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Salman Rushdie's novella Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) has been read largely as a reconciliatory work, a modern-day fairy tale for children in a deliberately light-hearted vein by the beleaguered and recently divorced novelist whose publication of The Satanic Verses two years earlier had resulted in the fatwa declared by the Ayatollah Khomeini. In a powerful and uncompromising critique of the work, however, Srinivas Aravamudan has taken Rushdie to task for the alleged ideological baggage of the tale, arguing that the conflict between the land of Chup and the land of Gup--in other words between silence and free speech--represents "a banal didactic fiction" which essentializes "censorship and literature as Manichean opposites" (327). Other critics have been more favourably inclined, pointing out literary influences and ambiguities that indicate a less polarized reading of its message. (1) My purpose is to add to these latter interpretative voices, pointing out the extent to which the tale makes sophisticated use of a number of literary allusions from various Romantic-period texts, notably those by Coleridge and De Quincey, and, in doing so, introduces a self-consciously literary element into its fabular generic mode. I will also suggest that these allusions introduce a far stronger political element to the work, leading us to a neglected though significant context to the fable: Rushdie's long-standing interest in Kashmir, the land of his ancestry, as of Saleem Sinai's in Midnight's Children, and the origin of the eponymous Shalimar the Clown in his latest novel. (2)

A recognition of the central importance of Kashmir to the text--as I will argue in this essay--helps to ground the fantasy in a socially-committed vision and deliver Rushdie from the charge that his text advocates an uncritically universalist and free-floating doctrine of the freedom of speech in opposition to the overblown and violent reaction that The Satanic Verses called forth from various quarters. (3) In arguing this case I shall be turning to Rushdie's critical writings on Kashmir. The significance of Kashmir to Rushdie's entire fictional oeuvre is a huge subject, and my essay intends to focus on a single novella, Haroun, which, as I will show, has not been properly recognized in this regard. Such a recognition will help to provide Haroun a more significant place in Rushdie's canon, a place that has been denied largely on account of its trivializa-tion as a children's tale in the fabular mode. It also enables us to read Rushdie across period and genre categories, extending the critique of disciplinary boundaries and hierarchies that Rushdie has found limiting in relation to his own work. (4) Finally, I will argue that the text deconstructs normative distinctions between fantasy and reality, posing "real" issues of politics and governance in fairy-tale form.

It is worth remembering that Rushdie's novella emerges after a particularly painful period of his life, and that his brand of comic humour had already matured in Midnight's Children. Rushdie barely conceals a strain of satirical energy that emerges consistently in his other critical and creative work right until his most recent novels, Fury (2002), and Shalimar the Clown (2005), and which has often brought him into collision with state authorities and powerful opponents. In an essay on the film of The Wizard of Oz Rushdie says he had set out to write a tale that was "of interest to adults as well as children" and that it was Oz that helped him "find the right voice for Haroun" (Step Across this Line, 10). In the same essay, he dwells on "behind the scene tales" that show sadly how "a film that has made so many audiences so happy was not a happy film to make" and that its song "Over the Rainbow" ought to be "the anthem of all the world's migrants" on account of the "anguished longings" it betrays in Judy Garland's famous rendering of it (25). It is thus the undercurrent of the grey and unhappy world of Kansas that sets off the work's brightness and happiness for the reader. …