Thursday, 30 June 2011

Book Review: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

“Man is a storytelling animal…in stories are his identity, his meaning, and his lifeblood. Do rats tell tales? Do porpoises have narrative purposes? Do elephants ele-phantasise? You know as well as I do that they do not. Man alone burns with books.”

I must begin with that age-old confession of fandom: Salman Rushdie could probably write a cereal packet and I’d not only buy it and read it, but then write a glowing review. His writing is as vibrant and colourful as the stories he tells, he’s playful, exuberant, and there is a pace, a narrative drive and stylistic vibrancy that both delights and keeps me turning the page.

Luka and the Fire of Life is a sequel to his 1990 children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Written for his eldest son, Zafir, Haroun told the fantastical fable-like tale a young boy whose father’s stories bring laughter to the sad city of Alifbay. However, when his father, Rashid, runs out of stories, Haroun sets off to the Sea of Stories for an adventure that succeeds in returning the stories to Rashid, and the laughter to Alifbay. I

In Luka and the Fire of Life, this time written for his second son, Milan, Rushdie return to Alifbay, where another terrible thing has happened to Rashid: he has slipped suddenly into a sleep so deep that nothing and no-one can rouse him. In order to save his father from slipping away altogether, Luka, accompanied by Bear the dog and Dog the bear, embarks on his own adventure through the Magic World, this time to steal the fabled Fire of Life, a seemingly impossible and exceedingly dangerous task.

So difficult and dangerous, in fact, that Rushdie turns the adventure into a video game, replete with multiple lives, nine different levels, and save points that are strangely never required, even when Haroun dies loses a life. This structure provides an interesting mindset against which to tell a dangerous adventure story and saves that annoying trope of allowing a hero to somehow survive a series of impossible obstacles on the way to completing his mission. However, while Rushdie uses his doppelganger Rashid to make a statement in favour of the value of computer games, and despite talking in recent interviews of the potential of computer games to tell stories in a looser manner in which the reader/player has greater agency to take their story in a number of lateral directions rather than following the author’s single vertical line, one rather gets the feeling that he balks at the opportunities this could have provided to radically alter the structure of the story. The computer game motif is thus rather more of a plot theme than a structural concept and seems not to have seen a computer game since the early 1990s, with the result that this feels rather more like retro nostalgia than a modern attempt to re-work what a story can do.

Rushdie, it seems, is a creature of habit. There may be new glosswork here, but underneath all the plaster that dominates much of Rushdie’s work remain intact. Freedom of speech, and of belief, and of imagination, are the dominant messages here. Human value in and of itself. The power of stories to change the world. A mash-up of pop-culture and global mythologies. Rushdie’s cause celebes are well known and there is little here that he hasn’t said elsewhere. Yet that doesn’t seem to lessen the enjoyment of the passion with which he says these things. He would have made a talented speechwriter, for he knows his mind, understands his audience, and gives them what they want to hear. Take the passage below, in which Luka tries to rile a group of unruly, spoiled, forgotten Gods into supporting his quest. It may not be quite as eloquent as others – I’m thinking particularly of a great passage from Shame – but it’s powerful, emotive stuff nonetheless.

“You aren’t really the gods of anywhere or anyone any more. You no longer have the power of life and death and salvation and damnation. You can’t turn into bulls and capture Earth girls, or interfere in wars, or play any of those other games you used to play. Look at you! Instead of real Powers, you have Beauty Contests. It’s a bit on the feeble side, to be honest with you. Listen to me: it’s only through Stories that you can get out into the Real World and have some sort of power again. When your story is well told, people believe in you; not in the way they used to believe, not in a worshipping way, but in the way people believe in stories – happily, excitedly, wishing they wouldn’t end.”

For me, the pace of Rushdie’s childrens books is a bit too quick to ever have a chance to build up tension before the next event, but I turn the pages repeatedly, not so much for what might happen, but to see what pronouncement on human value might come next. It really could be a cereal box, for all it would matter to me. And his pop-philosophy delights as ever a plastic toy could.

Luka and the Fire of Life is not a classic work of children’s literature, but it is certainly an enjoyable read.  Rushdie is such a witty and playful writer and such an adept weaver of mythology, story, and fable  that there is something to enjoy on almost every page.

Luka and the Fire of Life was published by Jonathan Cape in hardback in September 2010. ISBN: 9780224061629, 224pp. A paperback version has just been published by Vintage, ISBN 9780099555322

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