Back in 1990, Salman Rushdie came out of hiding with the fatwa-inspired Haroun and the Sea of Stories. He dedicated that lovely novel to his son, Zafar, with a loving acronymic poem. Nearly two decades later, with a death sentence no longer over his head, Rushdie has written a sequel of sorts: Luka and the Fire of Life. This novel opens with the following dedication:
M agic lands lie all around,
I nside, outside, underground.
L ooking-glass worlds still abound.
A ll their tales this truth reveal:
N aught but love makes magic real.
This book is a gift to Rushdie’s younger son, Milan, and a gift to his readers. While Haroun is not a prerequisite to Luka, reading the former enhances the joy of the latter. With Luka, the novelist and his audience return to the magical realism and verbal gymnastics that first brought us together. A marvelous example occurs early in the book when Luka Khalifa confronts Nobodaddy, the specter of his father’s death, who suggests that by acquiring the Fire of Life, Luka can revive his ailing father. The twelve-year old boy gently protests, “‘But that’s only a story.’” To which Nobodaddy exclaims, “‘Just a story? … You of all boys should know that Man is the Storytelling Animal, and that in stories are his identity, his meaning, and his lifeblood. Do rats tell tales? Do porpoises have narrative purposes? Do elephants elephantasize? You know as well as I do that they do not. Man alone burns with books.’”
Recalling Annie Lamott’s memorable phrase “bird by bird,” Rushdie builds a “World of Magic” word-play by word-play. At times, the book flags and takes on the mechanical feel of a fantasy video game. But for the most part, the novel transports one to a world of flying carpets, talking animals, menacing rats, and shape-shifting dragons.
While this fable is quite accessible to young children who would like to be taken along a magic carpet ride with Luka as he bravely seeks to save his dying father, the obstacles that Luka faces are resolved much too quickly and need a longer denouement. Mature audiences will be left wanting more tension and more character development. Even by the end of the novel, this reader struggled to create a picture of Luka beyond a fuzzy sense of his impish courage.
Where the novel soars is with its philosophical exploration of life, death, and time. These are awfully big topics for a children’s book, but Rushdie weaves in word-play to lighten the load with his famous (infamous for those who believe that puns are not for grown-ups) neologisms. He creates FIFI for the Famous Incredible File Illusion, Vibgyor for the rainbow bridge (ROYGBIV in reverse for those who learned the colors of the rainbow), and a host of new phrases. Most enjoyably for those familiar with Hindi are the three Jo’s: Jo Hua, Jo Hai, and Jo Aiga (what was, what is, what will come). Before returning home with the Fire of Life, Luka must break the laws of time. Standing guard are the Past, the Present, and the Future.
Rushdie is no fan of this Trinity of Time. Just as when a great athlete is in her zone and time seems to slow down for her, Rushdie challenges the inflexibility of the clock and the calendar: “yesterday, then today, then tomorrow, tick, tock, tick. They are like robots marching along to the beat of the disappearing seconds.” He persuasively argues for a world that suspends time, a dream world that can make time disappear and can honor the realities of feelings: with excitement time speeds up; with boredom it slows down; and with love, “Time ceases to exist.”
There is much love in Luka and the Fire of Life. Beyond the fact that a story-telling father has dedicated the book to his son, the primary emotion that carries the novel is love. A boy will do most anything to stop the clock and keep his own dream-weaving father alive. And in keeping that father alive, the boy keeps alive the belief that stories matter; that they create magical worlds that are as real as life itself. For if good stories ceased to exist, what would be left to believe in? Indeed, the world’s gods would be out of commission if the tradition of story-telling was pushed to the shoulder on the highway to modernity.
In arguing for the right to carry the Fire of Life back to his father, Luka pleads with the gods that this mission is in their best interest: “And the plain truth is that if I don’t get the Fire of Life to him before it’s too late, he isn’t the only one to come to an end. Everything here will vanish, too … You aren’t really the gods of anyone or anywhere anymore … It’s only through Stories that you can get out into the Real World and have some power again.”
At the fairy tale ending of the book, Luka’s mother says, “It’s good to hear the old rubbish being spoken in this house again.” Despite minor reservations, Rushdie’s readers are likely to echo the sentiment.
For Dhanu and Dhiddhu and our sleep-inducing bedtime stories.