After a decade in the wilderness, Salman Rushdie has finally returned to form with his second children’s book, says Gaurav Jain
OKAY, SO he wrote this sequel for his other son Milan. Right, just as his previous children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was written nearly two decades ago for his son Zafar. Sure, he’s since emerged from the fatwa’s shadow, and yes indeed, Luka and the Fire of Life is a lighter-fingered book than Haroun.
Past all that obligatory preamble, let’s get to it. Luka is the 12-year-old brother of the elder Haroun and second son of Rashid the storyteller — we’re back with the Shah of Blah’s family in the city of Kahani. Once again Rashid’s talent suffers a crisis — this time, he’s just simply put out cold in a happy coma — and it is Luka’s turn to set out on an adventure into the parallel magical world to somehow save his father by bringing him the Fire of Life. This is a novel-as-quest-as-video-game, where this charmed place allows Luka to earn and lose ‘lives’ and ‘save’ his progress so he doesn’t have to repeat the ‘levels’ he crosses on his way to the grand prize. This alternative world is the same that Rashid has spun out in stories all his life, and therein lies this quest’s secret — Luka’s ‘power’ at each level is really his advantage of having paid attention to his father’s made-up tales, which gives him empathetic foreknowledge of people and an ability to guess how things work.
Luka wears heavy jewels. Rushdie’s children’s books are purer than his other work, which is to say they’re pure stories told fast. But reading him is never that fast since he manages to stuff all his obsessions, tics, demons and muscle into everything he types. For most of reading Luka — and it’s been a long time returning — you get the more familiar Rushdie from the 1980s. This 63-year-old serious man has merrily buried himself again in silliness and thick and thin language jokes — the children’s tale and its distemper of whimsy is his gift’s natural habitat. His old fondness for gumming words together and hectic punning (“Nobodaddy”, “RESTAU-RAT”) doesn’t grate against his steady knowingness and his rage for contemporaneity, the way it’s done in his past few books. (In Luka, he winks at the concept of spacetime wormholes and refers only once, thankfully, to Angelina Jolie.)
There are two enduring marvels of this older, or younger, Rushdie. The first, of course, is his voice, with its energy, its pressure, its kinetic push — in Luka it’s set somewhere between singsong piper and movie trailer baritone. And then there is the familiar sense of teeming multitudes on the page — alert to anything that moves, the breathless sentences beguile us with their velocity while the writer thinks up new ones with his jaunty inventiveness and vatic appetite. Who else would produce this sentence: “‘Over there, for example,’ he said as a raucous DeLorean sports car roared into view from nowhere, ‘is that crazy American professor who can’t seem to stay put in one time, and, I must say, there is an absolute plague of killer robots from the Future being sent to change the Past.’” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s no denying the fury of work in such writing, with its careful patterning and premonitions and linkages.
The story as virtual game also allows for Rushdie’s mania for modulating his story speeds — it’s another way for him to try to replicate the hiccupping pace of modernity on the page. The power of Rashid the storyteller’s imagination melts with Luka the little boy’s virtual intelligence, and we know who will win this contest (it’s the game, stupid). Luka also accommodates, of course, Rushdie’s habit of engorging on myths and allegories and old gods, and our young hero encounters an encyclopaedia of mythical creatures from traditions like the Egyptian, Assyrian, Norse, Greek, Roman, Aztec, Inca, Native American, Persian, Chinese, and many others — and no Indian, come to think of it. (Also, in echoes of Oz and, perhaps, the first story Rushdie ever wrote at the age of 10 titled Over the Rainbow, Luka successfully crosses the Vibgyor arch, “the One Bridge to the Heart of the Heart”.)
SO WHAT do the multitudes teach Luka? Is there any chance we might yet heed the lesson Rushdie has been trying to teach us all his life — how to be irreverent to all gods (“these supernatural pensioners”) and how to use the old sacred stories for literary purposes. In a recent interview, he remarked on how “something very valuable happens to these stories when people stop insisting on a literal truth. They were once state religions. Now we read them as literature, as beautiful stories rather than true stories.” Or as the queen Insultana of Ott screams more succinctly, “We expectorate on the Respectorate!”
Rushdie’s last three novels have increasingly sunk in bathos and doughy adages, but Luka seems to have loosened him out of his clenching need to be relevant, for canonical vibration, and his next book, the memoir he’s currently writing — judging by the example of his stunning memoirette essay A Dream of Glorious Return — should be another high point after a decade in the wilderness. How odd it is that this return to form has happened right under our noses and we are so meagre and fusty and spit-swallowing as to now not admit it.
Rushdie winks at the concept of spacetime wormholes and refers only once, thankfully, to Angelina Jolie
Haroun has already been presented as a play (directed by Tim Supple) and as an opera (with a libretto by James Fenton), and with its many roaring songs and fantastic imagery, Luka too is preprogrammed for suitable adaptations into a play, a musical, a masque, a Technicolor cartoon, and sure, a movie too.
The kid stays in the picture.