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Why Fiction Matters: Salman Rushdie and The Sea of Stories

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You can never be entirely sure why you decide to read a particular book. Maybe someone told you it was a good read. Maybe you’re feeling lazy and decide to flail your arms randomly until they magically alight on the nearest book available–you know, the one that’s been sitting on your night table for years, the one with the cover that looks like a giant coffee stain, the one that smells like cat pee even though you’ve never had a cat. And maybe one afternoon your eyes fall on a book you bought on a whim three years before at an out-of-state bookfair and you think to yourself, Well, why not? Certainly, there are more sophisticated reasons for choosing to read Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories (or any other book), but that last one, alas, is my own.

Rushdie’s novel, above and beyond anything else, is about why books matter, why fiction matters. The novel’s protagonist, a young adult by the name of Haroun, lives in the fictional “country of Alifbay, [in] a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.” The city’s only real source of joy is Haroun’s father, Rashid Khalifa, a storyteller “famous throughout that unhappy metropolis [for his] never-ending stream of tall, short and winding tales.” The Khalifa’s anomalously joyful family life, however, is under attack; their upstairs neighbor, Mr. Sengupta, has been secretly cavorting with Rashid’s wife Soraya, poisoning her mind against her husband. “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” he asks her, planting the question which propels Rushdie’s narrative.

What follows is more or less Rushdie’s answer to that perplexing (and, as a book lover, infuriating) question. Without spoiling too much, Rushdie demonstrates that stories have their practical side; he shows how stories can function as vessels of personal insight, and even of social change. At the novel’s end, for instance, Rashid chooses to renege on an agreement he had made with a corrupt politician to propagandize the politico’s constituents with false tales of his munificence. Recognizing that “money isn’t everything,” Rashid enraptures the political audience with the story we have just read: a parable about the ends to which leaders will go to subjugate those they are meant to serve; a parable about the importance of freedom and free speech, and of the power of unified, communal action.

Rashid’s audience, recognizing themselves in the oppressed lot of his story, “pelted [the politician] with rubbish as he fled,” together seizing their political autonomy. So, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” Well, for one thing, Rushdie argues that stories can provide a catharsis of recognition: helping us to see the difference between the people we are and the people we want to be, and showing us how to close the gap.

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