Luka and the Fire of Life
The world according to Salman Rushdie post-fatwa is a very bad place. If his books from this era are anything to go by, most people are judgmental, small-minded, and intolerant. In this book, and its prequel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie is passing that same worldview on to his sons. Buried under verbal twists and turns and puns and slapstick, Luka and the Fire of Life is about a boy undertaking a quest through a mythical world (created, it seems, by his father’s stories) to save his father’s life. He braves great challenges and finds courage he did not know he had. Ostensibly, Luka is on a quest to find his own voice, but the voice he actually finds his father’s.
While I was reading the book, I kept trying to imagine a twelve-year-old boy reading it, but I couldn’t. The references to video games are a bit sad—like a sixty-year-old father trying to appear cool by getting into what his pre-teen son likes—and wouldn’t fool any kid. The adventures were too wordy and too weighty to really pull me along, let alone a mile-a-minute boy. Luka and the Fire of Life left me with an overwhelming sense of a man desperate to prove his own relevance—to everyone, but maybe mostly to his son.
And where is Luka’s mother in all this? Soraya is a flat character, given to pronouncements about how hilarious the men in her family are, more often tut-tutting than actually speaking. She sits uselessly by Rashid’s bedside while her son goes out to save the world. I wondered what kind of quest Rushdie would think of for her if he could. She does appear in an alternate form in the fantasy world, helping Luka on his way, but she does not present any counterweight to his father or his father’s image of the world.
Rushdie was at his peak with The Satanic Verses, a book I believe was as close to genius as anything written in this generation, when Rushdie was forced into hiding. It is impossible to imagine the impact a worldwide death sentence would have on a creative mind, but if Rushdie’s books of this era are any indication, then the fatwa killed the spark built in Rushdie’s early work.
I remember the hate and the close-mindedness of the fatwa; for many in the West, it may have been one the first glimpses of the power and reach of extremist Islam. But I also remember the courage of the many who stood with Rushdie and protected him in those years. I remember rallies at University and writers and others risking their lives to stand up for Rushdie. Where is that alternate worldview in his books? Tragically for his readers, Rushdie seems yet to see this side of this momentous event.
It seems like today—when religious extremisms and hate seem to be winning the war of words, when secularism and so-called blasphemy can get even the Governor of Punjab killed—Rushdie could help us see the other realities. He could show the world beyond it and behind it, not just point us through it, as if it were the only truth and, like it or not, we have to navigate it, with just a dancing bear and a singing dog and a few words of advice from an aging storyteller. I want the Rushdie of The Satanic Verses back; he really knew how to cut the legs out from under the small-minded power of intolerance.