Daily Archives: December 14, 2010

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

In 1990 Rushdie published his great and profound fairy-tale `Haroun and the Sea of Stories’. It had been written for Rushdie’s then eleven year old son Zafar; but part of the trigger for it and an element in its power had been a traumatic crisis in Rushdie’s life: the fatwa which had been pronounced against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini, calling on loyal Muslims to kill the author of `The Satanic Verses’ for having used his imagination in the portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed. `Haroun’ was an eloquent defence of the freedom of speech and of the importance of the imagination. Rushdie and Zafar both figured in the book under the names of Rashid the story teller, and Haroun.

Twenty years later Rushdie has written `Luka and the Fire of Life’ for his second son, 12 year old Milan, born 18 years after Zafar. The connection with the earlier book is made explicit: we meet Rashid and Haroun again; there are references to Haroun’s exploits in the earlier book; Luke is Haroun’s younger brother; their mother in both books is Soraya (though the real-life Zafar and Milan have different mothers.)

One speculates whether there had been a crisis that triggered the second book – possibly an illness which had made Salman aware that at 63 he was quite an elderly father of a young boy. At the beginning of the story Rashid, described as having slowed up for some time, falls into a deep sleep from which he could not be roused. His life was visibly ebbing.

This present tale involves a family – father, mother and two sons – that seems to be a fictionalized version of Rushdie’s own family. Luka pronounces a curse on a circus ringmaster who has been abusing the circus animals. He is astonished to discover that he has magic powers and the curse has actually worked. In retaliation, the ring master places a counter-curse of Luka’s father, who falls into a deep sleep from which he seems to be drifting away into nothingness. Luka learns that the only way to save his father’s life and return him to the land of the living, is to venture into the Magic World and steal the Fire of Life. And so begins his series of adventures – and misadventures.

I could picture Rushdie having fun writing this tale and reading it to his son. The book will delight children with its rich characters and constant pitting of good versus evil. It will also delight adults who will notice Rushdie’s abundant use of literary allusions and tipping of his hat to countless familiar fairy tales and books of adventure. I will offer a partial list of the literary tributes he pays, but I eventually stopped counting them because there was a steady stream of them. Rushdie offers a nod of appreciation and recognition to “The Phantom Toll Booth,” “Alice and Wonderland,” Jason and the Argonauts, countless Disney tales, Arlo Guthrie, 1001 Arabian Nights, Sherlock Holmes, “Back to the Future,” Shakespeare and the traditional Protestant hymnal!

Along the route Salman Rushdie introduces philosophical themes. The importance of the imagination and of story telling is of course again one of them. Another, recurring frequently, is the nature of Time.

Though Luka and the Fire of Life is a sequel, it easily stands on its own two feet. The two novels do have common elements, but reading one is not necessary to understand the other. Rushdie gives the reader a quick summary of the events of Haroun and the Sea of Stories; as a result, you know all you need to going into the story. Still, though, I do recommend reading both books, if only because they are both adorable and have their own quirks and strengths. That being said, it is definitely not necessary to read them in order, though if you are going to read both, I’d strike down the more conventional path in order to avoid spoilers.

Luka and the Fire of Life actually has the feel of a video game. Luka gains and loses lives throughout his adventures, and the World of Magic has different levels he must get through before he can reach his final goal. There are even save points, so if Luka “dies”, he won’t have to repeat what he’s already done. As someone who enjoys the occasional video game, this really appealed to me. I thought it was incredibly creative to take something that is huge in popular culture and make it literary. As this book is easy to read and a lot of fun, I do wonder if that aspect will make it appeal to younger readers who are more likely to play games than read a book.

Rushdie’s writing is often iridescent, and powerful in the description of the many cataclysmic scenes. His word-plays (some witty, others so corny that they are surely designed to elicit groans from 12 year old readers) and his inventions flow fast and furiously – but the inventions have neither the cohesiveness nor the depth of the issues to be found in the earlier book. It is all a jolly and at times an educational romp. As a story for children I think it rates the five stars. As a story for adults, too, it is very entertaining, even if it does not quite match the quality of `Haroun’.

Here is a book trailer where Salman Rushdie reads from the book with children:

Luka and the Fire of Life; Rushdie, Salman; Jonathan Cape; Random House; Rs. 499