CHILDREN'S FICTION : Luka and the Fire of LifeBy Salman Rushdie Jonathan Cape, 216pp, £12.99
IN 1990, just over a year after the fatwa was pronounced, Salman Rushdie sought solace in children's literature, publishing Haroun and the Sea of Storiesas a gift for his eldest son, Zafar. It remains one of Rushdie's most under-rated works, an adventure story fashioned in a magic-realist style, aimed squarely at young readers while containing enough literary flourishes to delight their parents too.
Twenty years later Rushdie has returned to the family at the centre of Harounwith his latest book, written for his youngest son, Milan, who, quite rightly, insisted that if his elder brother was given a book of his own, then it was only fair that he should have one too.
It's a good thing for readers that Milan spoke up, for Luka and the Fire of Life is a rare gift, a contemporary narrative that combines the delights of a traditional fairy tale with the excitement of a modern adventure story. It is at times charming, exciting, scary and very funny, and although Rushdie delights in creating perils for his young hero there is a seriousness beneath the magic, in the story of a father and son and their overwhelming fear that they will one day be separated.
The novel begins with Luka delivering a curse upon the head of a passing circus master, Captain Aag. “May your animals stop obeying your commands and your rings of fire eat up your stupid tent,” he roars, and soon the ringmaster is left cowering in fear as the animals advance on him, his circus is consumed by flames and a dog called Bear and a bear called Dog have decided that, rather than make a bid for freedom, they will track down Luka and install themselves as his boon companions.
Traditional themes of the fairy tale are layered and built on as Captain Aag imposes a similar curse on Luka, or rather on his father, Rashid Khalifa, the legendary storyteller of Kahani, who falls asleep “with a smile on his face, a banana in his hand and a twinkle on his brow, and did not wake up the next morning”.
Rushdie is skilled at adapting ideas from both world literature and contemporary culture into his fiction, and although Luka’s encounter with his father’s ghost at the outset of a story is a familiar conceit, others peppered throughout the novel are more subtle. Rushdie’s premise that Luka’s father will grow weaker as the avatar grows stronger, and vice versa, recalls Back to the Future, and indeed it’s only another 50 pages or so before Doc Brown and Marty McFly pass through in their DeLorean time machine – followed closely by both the Terminator and a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
The world of video games and computer simulations plays out in the background of the story and is less interesting than the magical universes Rushdie creates in the rest of Lukaand Haroun. But his sentences are complex and captivating, and the studied literacy of the language is balanced with humour, leaving the reader not laughing aloud with the vulgarity of the comic novel but smiling with the subtlety of the literary one.
The importance of storytelling is reiterated time and again, a rather wonderful insistence in a novel written as a gift from father to son: “You of all boys should know that Man is the Storytelling Animal, and that in stories are his identity, his meaning and his lifeblood. Do rats tell tales? Do porpoises have narrative purposes? Man alone burns with books.”
Rushdie is a storytelling animal himself; it runs through his novels with the same sense of purpose as the river carving its way through the wild terrain of Midnight's Childrenor Haroun battling his way towards the Sea of Stories.
Most 12 year-olds would probably ask for a computer game for their birthday; Milan Rushdie asked for a book and he got one. Closing the pages of this fantastical adventure, one can only feel fortunate that he was generous enough to share his present with the rest of us.
John Boyne's second novel for children, Noah Barleywater Runs Away, was published recently