“Luka and the Fire of Life”
By Salman Rushdie. Random House, 218 pages.
Author appearance: Salman Rushdie will read from and discuss his new book at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 18, in the Carter Center’s Day Chapel, 453 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta. Tickets are $27 (including a signed copy of the book) from acappellabooks.com or 404-865-7109.
The question of who becomes a problem in Salman Rushdie’s latest fable, “Luka and the Fire of Life.” Who is this story written for? The story behind the story is that Rushdie wrote it at the request of his younger son, Milan, who wanted a book written for him just as his elder brother, Zafar, had received from Rushdie 20 years earlier — the much acclaimed “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.” Rushdie has talked of writing this book to appeal to both children and adults, in the vein of “Harry Potter,” and has cleverly framed the quest that carries the narrative as a kind of living video game. But even the eager child reader will have difficulty connecting with its murky discourses on the natures of time, mortality and the meaning of storytelling, and find little captivating about a sensible but bland child hero who frequently turns to adults to tell him what to do in his mission to save his father’s life.
Unlike the more whimsical “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” which I can imagine keeping my 10-year-old’s attention, “Luka and the Fire of Life” is primarily a story for adults peeking into a child’s world. But Rushdie has done better at this in “Haroun” and perhaps best in the novel that made him famous, “Midnight’s Children,” whose motley gang of young people, based on Rushdie’s real-life childhood playmates in Bombay, are full of sparkling personality, not one of them a simple vessel (like Luka) to satisfy a father’s needs.
Rashid Khalifa, the famous storyteller father in “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” reappears in the Luka tale, at first still slightly jaunty at age 62 in a red shirt and Panama hat, a resident of the pseudo-Indian city of Kahani. (“Kahani” means “story” in the Hindi language.) Rashid is an old father to 12-year-old Luka, the baby in the family, whose brother Haroun is older by 18 years. (Rushdie’s characters faithfully replicate the ages of his two sons and himself, and it’s hard not to read any fictional narrative of his against the looming metanarrative of his fatwa-cursed, sexy-babe-laced, tabloid-large life. It’s hard, also, to overlook the obvious mirroring of Rashid/Rushdie.) Soon, though, it’s revealed that Rashid’s creative powers are on the decline: “He was slower to smile than he had been, and sometimes, Luka imagined, it seemed that the thoughts were actually slowing down in his father’s head. Even the stories he told seemed to move more slowly than they once had, and that was bad for business.”
When little Luka angrily insults a villainous circus master, Captain Aag, for his mistreatment of animals, sluggish Rashid slips into a coma from which he won’t wake up. A fatwa-like message from Captain Aag informs Luka that his angry words have instigated this fierce retaliation against his father. As Rashid lies in limbo, Luka’s adventure to procure the Fire of Life to revive him is initiated by another adult — his father’s double, a shade who represents Rashid’s impending death.
This semi-transparent death figure dubs himself Luka’s “Nobodaddy.” It’s a flaw in the story’s basic structure that a figure who should be the child’s nemesis, his Voldemort, instead serves as his guide in the World of Magic. The realm of Magic is Rashid’s own story-world, his fictional cosmos. Here Luka is promised that he can find the Fire of Life atop the Mountain of Knowledge to resuscitate his father, and consequently cause Nobodaddy’s — Death’s — demise. Ultimately Nobodaddy does turn on the child, but their alliance has not made sense from the start. Why would Nobodaddy lead Luka to the source of his own destruction? But he cries delightedly, “I am among assassins! What are we waiting for, then? … Let’s be off.”
Rushdie’s fascination with twins is given full play here. Journeying to steal the Fire of Life through the manic, ever-changing video game “World of Magic” — with its different levels and obstacles, its constant tallying of lives lost and accumulated — Luka is joined not only by his father’s double but by a dog named Bear and a bear named Dog (a needless conceit that the reader can’t easily visualize). In the Respectorate of I, a land of Rats who “take Offense very sharply indeed,” Luka meets up with Insultana Ott, the Rats’ razor-tongued archenemy, who also happens to be named Soraya, like his mother. On this second Soraya’s Flying Carpet, they whiz toward the sacred fire over lands of forgotten gods and warring Beauty Goddesses whose sniped-about vanity seems an intentional swipe at Rushdie’s comely TV-hostess ex-wife, Padma Lakshmi.
Despite occasional passages of inventive writing and an insight or two that makes one pause, Luka’s odyssey lacks the strengths of good fiction. Too much of it feels arbitrary. The profusion of twins adds up to nothing significant. Luka loses lives, but there’s always someone around to bail him out. He worries about being sent back and having to start all over, but that never happens. Nor does he ever seem to be in any real danger.
The story’s lack of suspense is matched by the absence of an emotional core. Luka’s friendship with Soraya never evolves into a moving relationship that the reader can seize on. Luka himself is meant to be the story’s center, so it’s a shame he displays none of the vulnerabilities, terrible fears or frantic impulses of bravado or creativity that make a child so winningly a child. He’s a nonchalant, unexcitable mini-adult who figures that real adults should know the answers better than he does, as when he asks Nobodaddy, “Instead of singing that stupid hymn, how about suggesting a way for us to travel up into the Fog of the Past and find what we’re here to find.…”
And for all the talk about the power of storytelling in this narrative, Rushdie superfluously invokes the legends and gods of all cultures by cramming them into long lists that become gibberish to the reader’s ear. Rushdie’s facility with language has always teetered between virtuosity and desperation. In “Luka” it slips the wrong way. You finish the book and think, here was an idea without a plan.