Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie

Random House, November 16, 2010, Language: English

I am back and ready to write my thoughts, spin my own yarn for a change and take my time to ramble about this book which has kept me away from my keyboard for about four days. A children’s book! Four whole days to read with undivided attention, taking over my brain and my imagination to such a point that I was simply unable to pick up something else to read quickly and write about just as quickly. Salman Rushdie was the subject of my BA paper one hundred years ago, so it’s safe to say I know him fairly well and greet his every cover with a knowledgeable smile.  However, everything changes when Salman Rushdie moves from magic realism mode to fantasy mode, which he had already done before in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, another book I loved but which made my brain hurt. As I was saying before, I am really bad with fantasy and by bad I mean impatient. It’s not that I don’t like it, but generally it is impossibly rich and I get exhausted and don’t understand anything anymore by the middle of it. I do sometimes think that maybe I’m a bit retarded that way and like one of those characters who are too cynical to understand the world of magic and just crawl about in their grey lives and never look up at the blue sky. That’s me in reality, but that’s not me ideally. So, as if to just to prove that, a book will once in a while hypnotize me into its universe where one has no rules to rely on (this might actually be my problem with fantasy, the lack of rules) and will force me to stay there until I finish the damned thing even if it takes me a decade.

Luka and the Fire of Life is a quest, constantly alluding to computer game quests (another thing I really am behind on) but also to legendary quests, with the particularity that the hero is a boy, at the threshold of puberty. The mission he has is that of saving his father, the storyteller Rashid Khalifa (in which one easily recognizes Salman Rushdie himself -the fact that he has dedicated the book to his son, Milan, also helps) from his Big Sleep by feeding him the stolen Fire of Life. Yes, one very demanding father-son relationship. On the other hand, we also know that Luka, being Haroun’s little brother, is expected to have a fantastic adventure of his own, so this is like his coming of age voyage and his initiation within the clan of Blah, the Shah of which is Rashid himself. Because he talks so much. The whole thing eventually turns out to be, therefore, a trip inside his father’s fantasy and trust me, that’s a complicated place to travel through. Because, you see, magic realism is one thing: one has something to hold on to, reality is there, but just distorted from time to time in wonderful or scary ways in a sense that is always somehow predictable. Renouncing, like Luka did, actual reality to go into the World of Stories and try to make heads or tails of it requires a tremendous amount of confidence in the author’s willingness and ability of making you feel welcome.

There are things in this book that made me remember what I loved about fairy- tales as a kid and there are other things making me remember why I have developed such a passion for Salman Rushdie as an adult in the first place. I will start with the things that I loved thinking about as a child. First and foremost and always at the top of my wishlists: a flying carpet. In this case, King Solomon’s flying carpet (I had never known he owned one before reading this book). This particular miraculous vehicle has the unheard of ability of shrinking to the size of a handkerchief and extending immensely as well, so as to transport any number of people and/ or stuff. I imagined it emerald green with a fringe, even though I can’t remember if the color was mentioned in the book or not. Another thing-I-loved-to-think-about and wished to be: a beautiful flame-haired warrior princess with a name to match – Soraya. My favorite character today, but also someone I would have positively worshiped 20 years ago, an icy and rude girl with a heart of gold. Another personal favorite: a glistening river full of magical creatures, on which the hero glides in his boat. So, already two modes of transportation that I would most likely have killed for as a kid and might commit illegal deeds in order to obtain even today. Also: stars moving in the sky and shining very brightly, the difference between right and left (on the left there was the palace of the king, on the right there was a parking lot – this one is mine, not from Salman Rushdie), and flying at extremely high speeds.

What appealed most to my adult mind was, as always, the humor. I can’t even begin to explain what a tremendous difference in perception there is between a book that makes me laugh and one that doesn’t. And while I know that this is not the most mature of criteria, I find it immensely important for the author to not take himself too seriously: when coming across humor, it’s as if one gets a sense of the spontaneity of writing and the joy of the whole enterprise of creating a book. The author becomes just a partner for the ride and great company.  Even more so if the humor stems from irreverence. In Luka and the Fire of Life, the ancient gods from all extinct civilizations hang out together like retired people and get bored pretending they are still relevant. Prometheus goes under the nickname Old Boy and giggling references are made to his titanic nudity – since he’s a titan and the goddesses of beauty have fighting matches in the mud every day to conquer the title of loveliest of them all. There’s a coyote speaking like Machete and excessively polite rats who are the scum of the earth. When it’s raining hard, watr cats (cats made of water) fall from the sky. The dogs are not there, though, dogs are nice in this book. And also, when the heroes reach the giant whirlpool of time and try to fly over it, so high that they reach the Karman line, something like this happens something like this happens something like this happens something like this happens something like this happens until they manage to get past it and on to the next level in the game.

The imagery in the book is absolutely luxuriant, and it seems that as it also happened with Sjon’s novel before, I can only describe the highlights of the novel without actually making a very valid point or interpretation. I can only say that it has caused me to plunge headlong into these worlds upon worlds of miraculous creatures and kicked my imagination in the ass making me go back in time to when I could still calmly consider fairies and princesses and talking animals as part of a regular day in the life of any 5-year old. If only I had more patience for fantasy!

This is roughly how I imagined the Mountain of Knowledge when it turned into a grassy hill

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5 Comments on “Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie”

  1. mrprozakc says:

    As you know, I’ve had a bad start with Salman Rushdie, back in 2007. I couldn’t muster up the courage to give it another shot until I read this post – fantasy might be just what I need to get close to his writing. Should I start with Harum? I realize there’s some sort of connection between that one and Luka.

  2. I loved this book! and your review! and now I absolutely positively have to read your BA paper. Please, pretty please with sugar on top ;;)


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