LUKA AND THE FIRE OF LIFE Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie’s 1990 fable for children, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, struck an immediate chord because of the circumstances of its writing and publication. This endearing, inventive book was, after all, Rushdie’s first after The Satanic Verses, written for his older son and, for those old enough to spot it, full of allegorical resonance. An arch-storyteller, the Shah of Blah, and his young son fighting Khattam-Shudh and the Chupwalas to regain his powers and prevent the Ocean of Stories from being poisoned? Irresistible.
Two decades later, we have the follow-up, Luka and the Fire of Life, written this time for his younger son as he turns 12. If this lacks the contemporary charge of the earlier work, it’s simply because Rushdie’s circumstances are (thank goodness) very different today. It starts once again in the country of Alifbay and this time, young Luka, brother to Haroun, witnesses with alarm his storyteller father falling into a Big Sleep. To prevent his demise, Luka must venture forth to steal the Fire of Life from atop the Mountain of Knowledge.
Accompanied, to begin with, by Bear the dog and Dog the bear, he journeys into phantasmagorical lands facing successes and reverses, making friends and enemies as he nears his goal. As before, there are ingenious fabrications and a lot of wordplay, as well as allusions to, among others, Alice in Wonderland, The Terminator and Sherlock Holmes. (Try reading some passages aloud: it’s then that the rhythm, flow and mischievousness of the sentences come alive.)
The book is loosely structured in the manner of a videogame, with Luka having to pass through rising levels of difficulty, losing lives but not his life. Perhaps the most delightful section, and one with significance to those of us in this country, is when Luka finds himself in a land known as the Respectorate, inhabited by thin-skinned Rats quick to take offence at just about any utterance. Other pleasures await the bilingual reader: for example, there’s itching powder made from the rare Khujli plant, and the formidable guardians of the fire, the three Jos: Jo-Hua, Jo Hai and Jo Aiga.
Ultimately, of course, Luka is successful in his quest, but not before earning the friendship of a local potentate who goes by the name of the Insultana of Ott, fighting off and then winning over a bewildering number of unemployed gods from the world’s cultures (Neil Gaiman, anyone?) and a little last-minute help from Prometheus, the original fire-stealer. It’s a ride as dizzying as the one Luka faces on the Insultana’s magic carpet -- even though it must be said that it’s Haroun which is the more deft and charming of the two books.
If you think Literature ought to begin with a capital L, have an aversion to puns and like your heroes grim and existential, stay far away. The rest of you can dive right in.