Legends, Lessons, and Lies | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Legends, Lessons, and Lies
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, City Opera's 28th world premiere, argues eloquently for the importance of "stories that aren't even true."

"What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" For young Haroun Khalifa, eponymous hero of Charles Wuorinen and James Fenton's new opera based on Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, that is the question, and a terrible one at that. It is the Khalifas' neighbor, Mr. Sengupta, who, with delectable disdain, first doubts the value of stories. This is incomprehensible to the 11-year-old Haroun. After all, he is the son of Soraya, singer of enticing dream worlds, and the renowned storyteller Rashid. There are no ifs, ands, or buts here‹stories are Haroun's life.

But then one day, as is wont to happen, something goes wrong: Haroun's mother stops singing and runs away with the weaselly Mr. Sengupta, a man utterly devoid of imagination. To make matters worse, his father goes on a rampage and destroys all the clocks in the house, including Haroun's. That is the final straw, prompting the child to shout the fateful question at his father. The result is devastating‹Rashid loses his ability to tell stories‹and Haroun will spend the rest of the opera trying to take back those agonizing words.

In order to restore his father's narrative powers, Haroun embarks on a fantastical journey to the moon of Kahani. There he discovers that the Great Story Sea, source of all the world's stories, truly does exist‹just as Rashid had told him! The sea is aptly described by Iff, a water genie Haroun befriends, as a "liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity."

Indeed, stories have always been fluid, chameleon-like, contradictory. Thus, it isn't quite as easy as Mr. Sengupta believes to separate Stories from Facts. It is hardly an accident that in French, histoire means both "history" and "story." Seen in this ambiguous light, "Once upon a time" becomes suggestive of not only fairy tales but historical facts and feats as well.

Where does that leave the storyteller? If stories can be either tall tales or the truth, is he an entertainer or an historian? Are the lessons he imparts wisdom or whimsy? Among its definitions of "storyteller," the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary includes "euphemism for a liar." But who would dare refer to Homer and Chaucer as liars? The tenuous position of the modern storyteller is equally present in the negative connotations surrounding the terms "fiction" and "myth." It is as though anything that is not based in scientific fact or historic truth must be built on lies. Yet stories thrive on the notion that truth masquerades in an infinite variety of guises. If stories are so quickly labeled and dismissed as lies, what's the use of speaking them at all?

This tension between stories and truth erupted in the most unprecedented way on Valentine's Day, 1989. It was the day Salman Rushdie suddenly found himself trapped in what he has since called "a bad Salman Rushdie novel," the day the fatwa demanding Rushdie's swift execution was issued. Why? Because The Satanic Verses, according to its Fundamentalist Muslim critics, contained passages that were downright blasphemous. Beyond the fact that these excerpts were taken grossly out of context, there remains the extraordinary phenomenon of an award-winning writer receiving an international death threat because of stories that aren't even true!

Haroun and the Sea of Stories was Rushdie's first writing endeavor after the fatwa, published two years after he was forced into hiding. To some, a children's tale might seem a curious next step for the author of a supposedly sacrilegious tome. However, Haroun is just as much a Rushdie novel as The Satanic Verses. Both books typify his trademark fusion of Eastern and Western influences with insights that are at turns riotous and reflective, mystical and mundane. Both create worlds in which boundaries of reality and fantasy are constantly blurred and renegotiated. In short, Salman Rushdie is a master storyteller; one whose initial desire to create stories came from the most unlikely of places‹Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Rushdie has often cited the film The Wizard of Oz as his "first literary influence," an experience whose lasting impression on a Bombay boy's imagination is most evident in Haroun. It isn't hard to trace Dorothy Gale's journey down the Yellow Brick Road in Haroun's visit to Gup City. Like Dorothy, Haroun befriends a wide variety of fanciful characters such as Butt the Hoopoe, a mechanical bird, and Bagha and Goopy, a pair of rhyming Plentimaw fish. Together this ragtag team manages to outsmart and destroy the evil Khattam-Shud, "Arch-Enemy of all stories," who meets the same melting fate as the Wicked Witch of the West.

And yet Dorothy's fabulous adventures are framed within the parameters of "just a dream"; she will wake up and return to her ordinary Kansas life. This is not the case with Scheherazade, heroine of another work to which Rushdie is indebted, The Arabian Nights (or A Thousand and One Nights.) While just as much a source of entertainment as Oz, The Arabian Nights has a far more serious center. Scheherazade is spinning tale after mesmerizing tale in order to save her life (as well as halt the Sultan's reign of terror).

The high esteem in which Scheherazade is held, both within and without her legendary story, is an enormous testament to the power of storytelling. It is a majestic power that the storyteller wields, one that in the "real world" can elicit change as it enthralls. However, to the adversaries of stories it is a formidable threat that must be silenced at all costs. As Khattam-Shud sings in Act II of Wuorinen and Fenton's Haroun:

Inside every single story
It is beyond my control…
It spoils everything!

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Haroun is that it presents as the antithesis of stories not truth but silence. Khattam-Shud is the "Foe of Speech," he is against language regardless of the nature of the words spoken. By conquering this villain, Haroun accomplishes two important feats. He prevents the ancient source of stories from being irrevocably poisoned. And he succeeds in liberating Khattam-Shud's misguided followers, who were obliged to take a life-long vow of silence, the most zealous going so far as to sew their mouth shut.

In the end, the stories are safe, the villain is dead, and there was even time left over to rescue a princess! Most important, Rashid has recovered his gift of the gab. For these most worthy deeds, the inhabitants of Kahani throw a party for Haroun, jubilantly singing their young hero's praises. The King then implores Haroun "to ask of us whatever favour you desire and we promise to grant it if we can."

There is, of course, a happy ending, but it is a poignant one. In adapting the novel, Fenton and Wuorinen astutely decided to incorporate Rushdie's dedication to his son, Zafar, into the opera's libretto. His words are transformed into Soraya's lullaby, sung at the beginning and end of the piece:

Zembla, Zenda, Xanadu: All our dream-worlds may come true. Fairy lands are fearsome too. As I wander far from view Read, and bring me home to you.

By doing so, Rushdie's story becomes even more intertwined with the story of Haroun. When he wrote those words to Zafar, then the same age as Haroun, it would be another eight years before the fatwa was finally lifted. The decade-long ordeal Rushdie and his family endured can never be sufficiently articulated, nor is it something which easily fades away. These parental words of wisdom are thus ones of defiant hope tempered with a knowing sadness.

Ultimately, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a reminder that stories are indeed important‹especially the ones that aren't even true. In a 1996 Salon.com interview, Rushdie claimed that "there is nothing wrong with the idea that fiction is a matter of life and death." This statement touches the heart of storytelling, the reason why it has and will continue to flourish in the face of ignorance and censorship. Stories cannot be isolated from "real life," for perhaps the most intrinsic human impulse is to give shape and meaning to the chaos of day-to-day existence. While there may never be a true "happily ever after," there are infinite new stories in the Great Story Sea waiting to impart their lessons. And lies.

Julie Squire, a recent graduate of Amherst College and The University of London, served as dramaturgical intern at NYCO last season.

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