Written in exile, this children’s novel acts as an allegory, it seems clear, about the power of voice, the importance of stories, and the dangers and cruelties of censorship. The story involves Haroun, the son of a city’s official storyteller who has lost his voice. He begins to wonder how and why stories are losing their power, their prevalence, and their creativity and originality. He begins a journey to a neighboring kingdom to seek the source of these losses and finds a nefarious plot by the ruler of this kingdom to possess and control the stories.
The themes and ideas of the stories, especially for children, are obviously vital, and Salman Rushdie is perfectly aligned and positioned to tell tell such a story. The issue with the book is in part, the storytelling itself has that issue of being phantasmagorically nonsensical. It has that quality that a lot of early children’s novels like Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, and Frank Baum of the “And then” quality, where it feels like so many of the elements are not built in any kind of real sense except to serve the purpose of the story. In fables, it might work; in fantasy, it doesn’t. And I don’t find fables nearly as compelling. I also think this book struggles to find an audience because of the complexity of the language and narrative, as well as the complexity of the different clear reference points. Maybe “getting” the references or analogs distracts this reader from the story, but I wonder what this reading experience would be for a young person. I find this to be a common element in book written for children by authors not particularly known for telling children stories. There’s sometimes a misrembrance or a misapplication of their own precociousness as children for the ways in which children tend to be.