The Art of Storytelling and the Role of Memory in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life

Soumava Maiti

Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


The focus of this study is mainly twofold – firstly to locate Salman Rushdie’s two children’s fiction namely Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Luka and the Fire of Life (2010) in the storytelling traditions of east and west and to understand Rushdie’s art of storytelling; and secondly to address the role of memory in this very act of storytelling and to analyze the metaphor of journey in that process of memorizing in these novels. This article seeks to analyze how memory in the form of ‘minimarrative’ can challenge the official version of story/ history and the concept of homogeneous empty ‘Time’ and how the gap between memory’s ‘private inside’ and ‘public outside’ might be bridged in the scope of these two novels.

 Keywords: storytelling, memory, journey, time, nation.

Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Luka and the Fire of Life (2010) celebrate the triumph of storytelling, literary imagination and memory over power and dogmatism. This study is an attempt to find answers to the following questions in the scope of the two children’s fiction by Salman Rushdie. Does memory influence only those who remember? Does it influence those who are remembered? Is the concept of memory static? Can it not change the bygone days? It is true, history or the past events directly or indirectly create our memory. Can memory create its own version of history? How can the shared memories of different social groups foster a sense of collectivity? Can memory serve the ethical purpose of a novel? I will seek to analyze in the process of remembrance how an individual and a community influence and complement each other.

In his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, Michel Foucault defines genealogy as an analysis of descent opposed to the evolutionary model of history whose main force is in the search for origin: genealogy liberates what has been forgotten or lost in the continuum of history and what has been set aside as accidents or errors in the imposed order of historical necessity. The genealogical approach with its task of tracing “passing events in their dispersions” questions a “suprahistorical perspective” that assumes a “teleological movement of events in the homogenized form of time” (Rabinow, 1984, pp. 76-100). In this study I will seek to understand how characters like Haroun and Luka can resist the “teleological movement of events in the homogenized form of time”, symbolized by the figures like Khattam-Shud and Aalim.

In Haroun and Luka, Rushdie achieves the effect of “written orality” (Brenan, 1989, p. 139), in introducing Indian storytelling as it functions in the Kathasaritsagara, the largest available collection of tales in Sanskrit verse, written by Somadeva in the eleventh century. The Chinese box pattern of the Kathasaritsagara is metaphorically represented by the idea of ocean. Indeed the main plot of the Kathasaritsagara, the romantic adventures of Prince Narawahananda and his quest for the throne, is interspersed with many shorter tales which can be categorized as fables, anecdotes, religious sermons, gothic stories or romances; and several interlinked stories are narrated by the characters to clarify their arguments or to both instruct and amuse the listeners. The nonlinear mode of storytelling with the intertwining of multiple storylines is the oral one which is traditional in India and the Middle East. Like The Mahabharata, The Ramayana, Panchatantra, Jataka tales and The Thousand and One Nights they belong to the Indian tradition of cyclical, episodic, and digressive storytelling. The splitting of the name of the caliph of Baghdad, Haroun-al-Rashid, “into the names of father and son,” as Meenakhshi Mukherejee observes in her essay “Haroun and the Sea of Stories: Fantasy of Fable?” invokes “the cycle of tales that for Rushdie has long been a synecdoche for an inexhaustible storehouse of stories” (The Perishable Empire, 2013, p. 153). Among the many other countless sources one important source is the tales of Panchatantra. Haroun’s changing his turtle for his father’s peacock has a subtle reference to the tales of “bird and peacock” and “bird and turtle” in Panchatantra. The Water Genie Iff reminds us of the tale of The Arabian Nights which is abounded with Genies of all sorts, including the Water Genies. Salman Rushdie returns to the theme of The Conference of the Birds (written in the twelfth century by Farid-ud-Din Attar) in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, 15 years after the publication of his debut novel Grimus (1975), where he first made reference to Attar’s poetic masterpiece. In Attar’s poem the bird hoopoe, as figure of the sheikh who guides the Sufi adept along the path of righteousness, appears at the beginning of the poem to tell the birds about their king Simurg. In Salman Rushdie’s novel (1990) when the Water Genie asks Haroun to choose a bird to carry them to Kahani, Haroun chooses the hoopoe, the bird with a brain box with “memory cell” (p. 149) and the bird that “in old stories . . . leads all birds through many dangerous places to their ultimate goal” (p. 64).

The story of the novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) begins in an imaginary “country of Alifbay,” with “a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name” (p. 15) and ends happily with a policeman’s declaration of “We remembered the city’s name” (p. 208). Hence, here in this story there is a journey from forgetfulness to the restoration of memory. The narrative of the story starts with the identity crisis of a community as it forgets the city’s name and ends with the preservation of the lost identity by recalling the name. The name of the city is “Kahani” and “It means story” (p. 209). The novel tells the story of Haroun Khalifa and his father Rashid Khalifa and their adventure in Gup and Chup in search of Rashid’s lost talent of storytelling after Rashid’s wife Soraya’s disappearance with a clerk who despises stories as useless untruth. While Soraya finds Rashid’s impractical storytelling impossible to stand, Haroun on the other hand finds his father’s skill fascinating. In the practice of storytelling, the talent of the storyteller is celebrated: “Haroun often thought of his father as a juggler, because his stories were really lots of different tales juggled together, and Rashid kept them going in a sort of dizzy whirl, and never made a mistake” (p. 16). In his essay entitled “Between memory and history: Les lieux de memoire” Pierre Nora (1989) felt that memory should be captured through individual means, because “the less memory is experienced collectively, the more it will require individuals to become themselves memory individuals” (p. 16). Nora says that “memory . . . is affective and magical” (p. 8). Thus the memory-maker is a kind of magician who controls the affections of his/ her audience. I find Pierre Nora’s linking the concept of the memory-maker and magician quite interesting. Haroun and Luka often consider their father as a magician or juggler who controls the affection of his audience…Full Text PDF