The current furor over Salman Rushdie's knighthood again places The Satanic Verses in the spotlight, which is annoying because it may not be Rushdie's best work but it consistently overshadows other novels worthy of discussion. Who talks about Shame or The Ground Beneath Her Feet or even Midnight's Children? Despite his other accomplishments, in the popular consciousness Rushdie remains a man of one book.
I've never taught The Satanic Verses for several reasons: it's too long and requires too much background information for an undergraduate survey course, and the political furor tends to overshadow the text itself. It's like teaching Sylvia Plath's poetry: students get so caught up in the poet's biography that they can't focus on the poetry as poetry. Further, it is difficult to hold a reasonable discussion The Satanic Verses when any critique of the novel runs the risk of being interpreted as favoring the fatwa.
The whole discussion would simmer down a bit if everyone took a time-out to read Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the next novel Rushdie published after The Satanic Verses and certainly his most joyful, though it begins in sadness:
There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.
The source of the sadness is simple: the Sea of Stories is being polluted, silencing the old stories and preventing the creation of new ones. The parallel between this silencing and the fatwa is clear throughout the book, but the possibility of a political interpretation does not overshadow the wildly inventive pleasure of the prose. On the simplest level, the book is a children's adventure story with heroes and villains and even a captive princess unlike any other captive princess you've ever encountered, but it is also a profound exploration of the costs of silencing stories. Haroun looks into the Sea of Stories:
He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained differents sorts of stories, and as all the stories that have ever been and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.
The Sea of Stories is inhabited by the aptly-named Plentimaw Fishes, whose many mouths constantly swallow streams of story:
...and in their innards miracles occur; a little bit of one story joins on to an idea from another, and hey presto, when they spew the stories out they are not old tales but new ones. Nothing comes from nothing . . . no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old—it is the new combinations that make them new.
Restoring the health of the Sea of Stories is Haroun's work and Rushdie's as well. His novels thrive on the kind of creative recombination that takes place in the Sea of Stories, drawing from all manner of texts (myths, fairy tales, sacred texts, literary works, news stories) to produce plots, characters, and images that are startlingly new. This, of course, is what caused all the trouble with The Satanic Verses: while no one objects to Rushdie's taking liberties with Omar Khayyam or the Sleeping Beauty myth in Shame, plenty of people do object to similar treatment of the Koran in The Satanic Verses. Hence all the fuss and bother, and let us not forget the violence. Rushdie may still be among the living, but others associated with The Satanic Verses have suffered or died: the Italian translator and the Norwegian publisher were wounded in attacks, the Japanese translator was stabbed to death, and the Turkish translator of The Satanic Verses narrowly escaped an arson attack that killed 37 people.
It's time for all this violence to stop. Everybody to the Time-Out Box: let's all take a long look into the Sea of Stories until the anger dies down. Maybe then we can have a reasonable discussion about Salman Rushdie.