Alex Clark is charmed by Salman Rushdie’s return to the world of Haroun and the Sea of Stories
The stories that adults invent for children – whether they’re designed as entertainment, diversion, education, balm or a mixture – come with a built-in dramatic irony. Not only does the teller have control of a particular narrative, how it proceeds and, perhaps most significantly, how and when it ends, but they will usually have a more developed understanding of what a story is in the first place, and know the approximate coordinates of the border between reality and fiction. But that kind of knowledge, as Salman Rushdie suggests in this engrossing and fantastical fable, loses its lustre if you stop believing in the stories you’re telling; at which point, an injection of childlike innocence might be exactly what you need.
Luka and the Fire of Life comes to us 20 years after Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written shortly after the pronouncement of the fatwa against Rushdie. Haroun was partly a response to the monstrousness of his enforced withdrawal from the world and partly a gift for his son Zafar, who had asked him to write something that children might enjoy reading. Its central story – a boy who must enter a magical realm and defeat malevolent forces on his storyteller father’s behalf – is repeated in Luka and the Fire of Life, which has been written for Rushdie’s younger son, Milan, who rather understandably wanted his own book.
Luka is Haroun’s younger brother, a late-born child whose arrival “can turn back Time itself”. But when Luka is 12, his father – Rashid Khalifa, also known as the Shah of Blah and the Ocean of Notions – seems to be succumbing to the passing of time, not merely physically, but imaginatively as well: “Even the stories he told seemed to move more slowly than they once had, and that was bad for business.” One day, he slips into a sleep from which it appears he might never wake; and, although he has a smile on his face, he is utterly deprived of his power to communicate. Luka, confronted by his father’s ghostly double – the tricksy, hard-to-pin-down Nobodaddy – embarks on a daredevil mission to the World of Magic, determined to return with the Fire of Life itself and thereby reinvigorate his father.
In a bustling and minutely imagined fabular landscape, crammed with allegorical figures and places, Luka moves swiftly between the mythological and the contemporary; one minute he is meeting all manner of gods and goddesses, the other he’s subject to the laws of the videogame, keeping a close eye on the number of “lives” he has left and trying to save his progress through various levels.
The parallels between the traditional quest and modern gaming culture are amusingly exploited, but Rushdie has weightier matters to address too. In a flood of wordplay and some tremendously corny jokes (at one point, Luka navigates three treacherous river eddies, known as Nelson, Duane and Fisher), he also explores the complex and changing contours of father-son relationships and the spectre of a world policed by po-faced critics (one set of villains are called the Learned Ones) or entirely denuded of storytelling. “Magic is fading from the universe,” one character warns. “We aren’t needed any more, or that’s what you all think, with your High Definitions and low expectations. One of these days you’ll wake up and we’ll be gone, and then you’ll find out what it’s like to live without even the idea of Magic.”
He also pauses, quite early on in the novel, to fashion a trenchant – if fairly simple to decode – satirical episode, as Luka finds himself battling through the Respectorate of I, a land inhabited by giant Rats, where everyone takes offence and visitors are warned to mind their manners. As the Border Rat tells him, “That you say you are offended, insults me mortally. And if you insult one Rat mortally, you offend all Rats gravely. And a grave offence to all Rats is a funeral crime, a crime punishable by – “. In this telling of the tale, the Respectorate is defeated by the land of Oh-Tee-Tee, “whose denizens, the Otters, are devoted to all forms of excess”, and who are led by Soraya, the Insultana of Ott, with her battle-cry “We expectorate on the Respectorate!”
Luka and the Fire of Life zings along with a palpable sense of Otter-like excess: its exuberance is inextricably linked to its profligacy with puns, rhymes, one-liners and snippets of nonsense. And although one would be amazed at the prodigious child who could follow to the letter its snaky progress, it captures brilliantly that moment when adults enrapture children by behaving like children themselves.
But its emotional resonance comes from a more restrained sense of a father communicating the limits of his own power and, by extension, the encroachments of mortality. As Luka sets out on his journey, he is impelled by the certainty that “he was not ready to do without a father. He would never be ready for that.” By its end, with the crisis, in proper fairytale fashion, well and truly averted, he is no readier to accept his father’s death, but he has experienced some intimation of the transference of power to come, “as if something more powerful than his own nature had taken control of him, some will stronger than his own that was refusing to accept the worst”. Like the best children’s stories, in other words, it has returned its protagonist to childhood – for the time being.