A book like Luka and the Fire of Life, the latest novel from Salman Rushdie, warrants a personal response. It is tempting (perhaps even easy) to write about the literary elements of such a book: Rushdie’s puns and allusions, his vivid language, his forays into the world of magical realism. But Rushdie has always been known as much for his personal and political life as he is for his writing, and Luka and the Fire of Life, though not explicitly autobiographical, is a personal book — a gift to his youngest son, Milan, and a meditation on the relationship between fathers and their children.
So, I will begin this review with a personal confession: I love Rushdie, but I do not love, or play, video games.
Luka and the Fire of Life is the companion novel to Rushdie’s earlier young adult book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun was written for Rushdie’s eldest son, Zafar, who, while Rushdie was at work on The Satanic Verses, requested that his father’s next book might be a novel for children. Haroun and the Sea of Stories was Rushdie’s first adventure in children’s writing and followed the young Haroun Khalifa on his adventure to save the voice of his story-telling father Rashid. With one question — “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” — Rashid, the renowned Shah of Blah, the Ocean of Notions, finds all his story-telling powers dried up. To save him, Haroun visits the Earth’s second moon, to the source of all story-telling, and restores both his father’s genius and his family’s happiness. The novel, published in 1990, was the first novel Rushdie published after the fatwa, and his story emphasizes both the political and personal trials of this part of his life.
Twenty years later, much has changed. Luka and the Fire of Life offers another foray into the lives of the now older Khalifa family. Their younger son Luka, born eighteen years after Haroun, is now ready for an adventure of his own, filled with fantastical creatures, distant lands, and P2C2Es (Processes Too Complicated To Explain). Luka is a miracle child, born to aging parents, with the power to “turn back Time itself, make it flow the wrong way, and make us young again.” True to his birthright, Luka’s mission — also in service to his story-telling father — is not to restore Rashid’s voice, but to awake his father from a prolonged sleep, literally restoring him to life.
Luka is a young boy with “a strong interest in, and aptitude for, other realities.” He is compassionate and powerful (his curse against a circus-master earns him his two loyal companions Dog, the bear, and Bear, the dog), wildly imaginative, and a compelling actor. His father Rashid notes that, unlike his brother Haroun, Luka is fortunate to have been born in “an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys.” Luka is, in short, a connoisseur of the video game, or, as he prefers: “Super-Luka, Grandmaster of the Games.” Luka and the Fire of Life is a foray into the fantastical, magical world of the video game.
In this, Rushdie enters a cultural moment in which this technology is being assimilated at breakneck speed and in which other art forms are trying to respond to its influence. As Matt Zoller Seitz recently argued in Slate, “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World could be the first Hollywood studio picture to find a playful visual grammar that expresses how the real and virtual worlds have started to merge in the mind.” In Luka and the Fire of Life, with its convergence of video game speak, mythological heavyweights, and epic narratives, Rushdie attempts a similar project. Luka’s adventure in some way has to incorporate this new imaginative landscape, precisely because it has become so central to the way a boy of his age would experience this kind of story.
In contrast to Seitz, I will confess that I found Scott Pilgrim about as entertaining as two hours watching someone else play a video game you don’t understand (my 16-year-old brother did roll his eyes at that assessment). But my reaction to Luka was quite different, and this, I think, has much to do with Rushdie’s unique approach. In a November interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, Rushdie explained his foray into the world of video games in this new novel:
They’re so much more sophisticated, these games, and I just thought that the things that’s interesting about them as a thing to use in a book is that they really do now create very large imaginative landscapes for the player to inhabit. And they give the player quite a lot of freedom about how to move through that landscape, you know, so the player has quite a lot of agency, so it’s not unlike a character in a book, you know. So I just thought it was a way, given that this a quest story, which is in fact one of the — one of the oldest quest stories of — is the quest for fire is one of the most ancient stories of all. I thought it was a way of using a very, very new language and a kind of metaphor to reignite, if you like, that old story.
Luka and the Fire of Life is not Rushdie’s first dip into the world of technology, but it is his most successful. Here he finds a way of connecting this new imaginary landscape to his literary landscape. Whereas the web-based world of Puppet Kings that Rushdie builds in his 2001 novel Fury is contrived and chaotic, the video game quest for the Fire of Life on which Luka embarks does not seem such a break from what came before it. Rushdie finds a way to incorporate his irreverent wordplay and fantastical characters, as well as the themes and motifs of his more serious work, in this new landscape. Whereas with Fury he was experimenting, here he is building playful bridges, forging experimental connections between many versions of the same epic.
This is not to suggest that Luka and the Fire of Life is flawless. Luka’s journey is imaginative and compelling, particularly as a children’s story, but the constant score-keeping and points-saving becomes tedious (at least for this non-gamer). Though the novel zips along at a rapid pace, some of the eight levels are less interesting than others. This perhaps leads the reader to wish Luka could capture the fire in fewer stages. Some even may wish to temper Rashid’s praise of his son’s video game aptitude, and side occasionally with Luka’s mother Soraya: “in the real world there are no levels, only difficulties. If he makes a careless mistake in the game, he gets another chance. If he makes a careless mistake in a chemistry test he gets a minus mark. Life is tougher than video games.” Nonetheless, there is much to be charmed by Rushdie’s video game world, and at its best the novel combines playful humor with a certain amount of tenderness.
The story takes its reader through a variety of elaborately constructed alternate universes, including the formidable Respectorate of I, a land of impeccable manners in which everyone takes offence at everything. Luka and his band are saved by Soraya, the Insultana of Ott, and her army of Otters, who storm the Respectorate crying, “We expectorate on the Respectorate!” The Otter queen Soraya (whose name only Luka can guess) provides Rushdie with endless opportunities for puns and wordplay, which, combined with Luka’s penchant for riddles and puzzles, make the journey to capture the Fire of Life one that often amusingly lighthearted and comical.
Luka’s success in the game is due in part to his temerity and skillfulness (in this way, the novel can be read as a defense of those left-handed children who struggle in chemistry and excel in imagination) and in part to his apprenticeship under his father, the Shah of Blah. Early in his quest, Luka defeats the Old Man of the River in a riddle face-off, aided by the extensive puzzle tutelage of his father. It is here also that Luka realizes that the magical world into which he has entered is that of his father’s own creation.
Traveling with his father’s dead-double Nobodaddy, who slowly comes to life as Rashid’s life slips from him, Luka is asked to navigate the world of his father’s own imagination. The stories they share between them are the key to unlocking the secrets of the game. The final battle for the Fire of Life, in which Luka faces all the most important mythological creatures of religions and cultures past, is really a battle for his father and for the power of his father’s occupation:
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. You want immortality? It’s only my father, and people like him, who can give it to you now. My father can make people forget that they forgot all about you, and start adoring you all over again and being interested in what you’ve been getting up to and wishing that you wouldn’t end. And you’re trying to stop me? You should be begging me to finish the work I came here to do. You should be helping me. You should be putting the fire into my Ott Pot, making sure it lights up my Ott Potatoes, and then escorting me all the way home. Who am I? I’m Luka Khalifa. I’m the only chance you’ve got.
Luka and the Fire of Life is a story about story-telling, and about the stories that matter. It is also a story about the relationships that matter. Though at times irreverent, the novel doesn’t avoid serious issues, though this is ostensibly children’s literature. Rushdie’s essay onThe Wizard of Oz is laden with his personal experience of the meaning of home — “not that ‘there’s no place like home,’ but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the homes we make, or the homes that are made for us.” The trope is one that runs through all of his work, and is hauntingly present in Luka. In its most serious and touching moments, Luka and the Fire of Life tells the story of a young boy, a little unusual perhaps, who finds his strength and his place in the world, as well as a father who rediscovers his own life at home with his family.
It is probably unfair to enter bring the author’s life to bear on his fiction. However, in Luka and his older brother Haroun, the echoes of Rushdie’s own life and family are hard to avoid. In his NPR interview, Rushdie spoke about the connections between the novel and his own relationship with his son Milan:
I think all boys, especially 12, 13-year-old boys, essentially believe that their father is useless, you know, and needs rescuing all the time. And so the story about — which is about a boy having to rescue his father, is based in that kind of psychological reality, you know, but it’s — it’s also the case that yes, we are, you know, older — the subject of age — when you’re 50 years older than your son, the subject of age is always in your mind, certainly in mine . . . you want to feel that your child will have a father when he needs a father while he’s growing up and when there’s a 50-year age gap, the possibility that that might not be the case is there. . . So that’s the serious engine at the heart of. I mean, I think the book is kind of fun, but the serious thing at its heart is this question of life and death. You know, the existential question, will you live to see your child grow up? And when Rashid falls into this coma-like sleep, it becomes the child’s duty to try and save his life. . .
Perhaps this is part of what makes Rushdie’s foray into the imaginative world of video games so charming — even for a devout non-gamer like me. One gets the sense, in reading Luka’s adventure, that this is really the story of a father, watching his son take on a new kind of adventure, one that reflects back his own penchant for story-telling. Luka is at once his father’s apprentice, and in a totally different world. It is Rushdie’s attempt to blend the two that, though not always perfectly executed, makes Luka and the Fire of Life such a pleasure.
Katherine Evans Pritchard is a contributing editor and PhD candidate in American Studies at Boston University.