A lot of critics and former fans of Salman Rushdie’s have come down on him for essentially taming his controversial style over the past twenty years. This is the kind of attitude I’d call crazy. The man already survived one Fatwa, should he be subjected to another just for more controversal novels? So one extreme hates Rushdie for exercising a freedom of speech, while the other hates him for not exercising it enough. Old animosities were already rekindled a few times in recent years, like when Rushdie won the “Booker of Bookers” for Midnight’s Children (meaning it was called the best book to win the Booker prize in 25 years), and when he spoke out about women’s use of headdresses in Islamic culture. With all of this going on, writing a book for “young readers” is a safe bet: thus, the creation of Luka and the Fire of Life.
With his “young reader” books (Haroun and the Sea of Stories being the first), Salman Rushdie comes close to creating books utilizing Gautier’s maxim “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake). While all of his books are heavy on wordplay and puns, this one features a higher concentration than usual. His word games are essentially Finnegan’s Wake-lite, meaning they’re quite clever, but rarely so much that they make the book a challenge to read. Also his “young reader” books are by no means exclusive to young readers. It belongs somewhere in the same pantheon as Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Coraline, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, or even the Harry Potter series, as kid’s books that are more appreciated by adults.
When reading this, it’s Rushdie’s idol Italo Calvino who most comes to mind. It has a similar mixture of colorful fabulist tales, metafiction, and levity that Calvino’s best works possess. Rushdie frequently praises Calvino’s work in his essays. The only bad thing about Calvino that he’s said was that his stories sometimes resemble Borges’ writing on a bad day. Being compared to Borges in any way isn’t terrible slander.
Luka and the Fire of Life uses as its central concept the idea of an alternate reality that adheres to the rules of video games. Luka (who is loosely based on Rushdie’s 13 year old son) is obsessed with video games, so it’s only fitting his dream world resembles one. Luka’s father, Rashid Khalifa, is a comical storyteller who was already saved once by Haroun, his oldest son. This time around, he manages to exhaust his storytelling abilities and falls into a deep coma, which starts Luka on a quest to go into an alternate world and find the Fire of Life, the only thing that can restore his father.
The plot from there is a largely episodic quest resembling Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ step by step. He finds a mentor/guide in the duplicitous Nobodaddy (a character out of the poetry of William Blake). He finds a few animal companions. He meets various gods and goddesses.
The main problem with the story is that, while the video-game concept is nifty at first, it gets tiresome after awhile, especially as Rushdie’s idea of a video game is hugely anachronistic. Scenes involve Luka hopping from place to place and collecting coins a la Mario, but then levelling up in the style of Final Fantasy. Then the story involves Luka finding save points and accumulating more lives. Similar to a real video game, this makes the suspense somewhat minimal. When Luka is in danger, he can restart a few steps behind, which he does far too many times.
What I found odd about the novel was that, while most of it conformed to the notion of l’art pour l’art, there were sections that contained, at least in embryonic form, atheistic dogma. This isn’t so much objectionable as an idea, but it bothers me because it’s located smack dab in the middle of a book that’s otherwise light and freewheeling. Such stories aren’t helped by any sort of dogma or idealism, whether it be for the right or left. What makes less sense is that Luka, while in this mythological world, is explained to by other mythological characters that myths aren’t real. This is a bit like buying a $6 glossy magazine that includes an editorial about how money isn’t everything.
The flaws I’ve mentioned, along with the way the story feels stretched thin at times, are only slight smudges on the whole. Personally, I’m happy just to know that Salman Rushdie is writing and being published. If he doesn’t wave the firebrand, I’m fine, so long as he continues to play around with language.
Have you read Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie? If so, what was your opinion?