[3 March 2011]
Hey, Salman Rushdie has discovered video games! His newest novel, Luka and the Fire of Life, is a sort-of sequel to 1991’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, itself a sort-of children’s book that holds a multitude of pleasures for adult readers, as well. Luka and the Fire of Life is equally entertaining, displaying as it does Rushdie’s hyperkinetic wordplay and inventiveness as it spins a yarn of fantasy and adventure that would not seem out of place in the Thousand and One Nights. Plus there are a few new elements this time around. One of them, already mentioned, is videogaming.
Twelve-year-old Luka is Haroun’s little brother; 18 years junior to his illustrious sibling, he has long pined for an adventure of his own. Chances have been few, however, growing up in the sleepy town of Kahani, with his patient mother and his wise, loquacious, storytelling father Rashid Khalifa. But before long, Rashid Khalifa grows strangely ill, perhaps cursed by an itinerant zookeeper whose animals have been rescued by Luka—hey, it makes sense in the book. With his father having fallen into a deep, unnatural sleep that shows no sign of abating, Luka finds himself setting off on the adventure that he has been craving. The only way for Rashid Khalifa’s curse to be reversed is for Luka to travel through the world of the fantastic: through the Mists of Time, past the Sea of Stories and finally to the titular Fire of Life itself. There he has to—this is the tricky bit—steal some of it.
Actually, the whole voyage is tricky, and the fire-stealing is only the most daunting in an array of daunting tasks. Fortunately, Luka has worthy companions, notably a dog named Bear and a bear named Dog, plus his dying father’s shade (who grows stronger as Rashid Khalifa weakens). Luka’s journeys net him more companions as he traverses strange lands, bringing him into contact with the ratlike denizens of The Respectorate of I, the over-the-top Insultana of Ott (whose Ott pots and Ott potatoes play a key role in the tale), and a variety of discarded gods, who although no longer worshipped are still very much alive—in this realm anyway. As Luka’s trials grow progessively more difficult, the stakes grow higher, as well.
Then there’s that videogame stuff. Luka’s journey takes on the trappings of a role-playing fantasy game a la World of Warcraft, complete with increasing difficulty levels, save points and lives that can be stockpiled in case a traveler is “killed”. Some readers will no doubt find this conceit unbearable—an unholy trespassing of modernity into the timeless form of fable that Rushdie handles so adeptly. For my part, I find these elements to be relatively low-key. If one is unfamiliar with videogames (as some readers of Rushdie might be), then one is likely to simply accept these details as additional oddities in Luka’s quest. If they are recognized, then they will just act as extra inside references, along the lines of Rushdie’s many other jokes and puns.
More important by far are those jokes, puns, and double meanings—all the piled-on richness of Rushdie’s language. Notwithstanding the intrinsic distance of the third person voice, Rushdie’s narrator is nonetheless a presence in the book, who relates the episodes of the story in a breathlessly hypberbolic tone that keeps the reader rushing along. Early on, we are told that “when [Luka] drew and painted, his father’s stories of, for example, the elephant-headed Memory Birds who remembered everything that had ever happened, or the Sickfish swimming in the River of Time, or the Land of Lost Childhood, or the Place Where Nobody Lived came to wonderful, phantasmagoric, richly colored life. At mathematics and chemistry, however, he was not so hot.” Later, Luka stands on the shore of the Lake of Wisdon and oberves that “little schools of cannyfish could be seen below the surface, as well as the brightly colored smartipans, and the duller, deepwater shrewds.”
And so it goes. The narrator’s voice is at times hyperbolic and breathless, other times wry and sardonic, but it is never less than noticeable. The reader’s response to all this will have a great deal to do with his or her ability to weather such verbal onslaughts as: “Of course the Insultana Soraya abused the lot of them roundly, as it was in her nature to do, calling them babies and girls and boobies and not-ducks-but-geese; she told them they were scaredy-cats and namby-pambies, sissies and yellow-bellies, milksops and milquetoasts and candy asses (a term with which Luka was not familiar, though he thought he could probably work out what it meant).”
The culmination of all this overheated verbosity is engaging and satisfying enough, if not entirely surprising. This is one of those stories where the outcome is rarely in much doubt; it’s the getting there (and getting back again) that’s fun.