Review: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

20 Books of Summer 2016: Book One

Finally! I’ve read seven of my 20 books for the summer reading challenge hosted by Cathy746books and now I need to catch up on reviewing. (Most have been good though one was terrible.) If you haven’t already, start here with my review of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. While you can read Luka and the Fire of Life without reading Haroun, it’s a richer experience if you’re already acquainted with the Khalifa family. As Haroun’s younger brother, Luka has grown up in the shadow of his brother’s great adventure and longs for one of his own. In comparing his quest to his brother’s, Luka defines his own place in his family’s magical history.

Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life kicks off with a light touch and the same warmth found in Haroun:

There was once, in the city of Kahani, in the land of Alifbay, a boy named Luka who had two pets, a bear named Dog and dog named Bear, which meant that whenever he called out, “Dog!” the bear waddled up amiably on his hind legs, and when he shouted, “Bear!” the dog bounded toward him, wagging his tail. Dog, the brown bear, could be a little gruff and bearish at times, but he was an expert dancer, able to get up onto his hind legs and perform with subtlety and grace the waltz, the polka, the rhumba, the wah-watusi, and the twist, as well as dances from nearer home, the pounding bhangra, the twirling ghoomar (for which he wore a wide mirror-worked skirt), the warrior dances known as the spaw and the thang-ta, and the peacock dance of the south. (3)

Dog and Bear come to Luka after he curses the cruel grandmaster of a circus and his tents burn down. They’re welcomed in his home when Luka’s father and brother accept them as a sign that Luka is on the edge of his own adventure. Soon, his father, Rashid Khalifa, falls asleep and no one can wake him. Just as Luka begins to despair, he looks out the window and is surprised to see someone that looks like his father standing outside:

As he ran out the front door with Dog and Bear, Luka had the strangest feeling, as if they had crossed an invisible boundary. As if a secret level had been unlocked and they had passed through the gateway that allowed them to explore it. He shivered a little, and the bear and the dog shivered, too, although it was not a cold dawn. The colors of the world were strange, the sky too blue, the dirt too brown, the house pinker and greener than normal… and his father was not his father, not unless Rashid Khalifa had somehow become partly transparent. (25)

The transparent Rashid Khalifa, a.k.a. Nobodaddy (a pun on Nobody), explains that he is Rashid’s death. As Luka’s father grows weaker, Nobodaddy will become less transparent and take on more of Rashid’s qualities and mannerisms until attaining a state of unbeing. For reasons that are nebulous at first, Nobodaddy agrees to accompany Luka on a quest to save his father. He leads Luka deep into a magical world built from Rashid’s stories and structured around Luka’s video games.

In Haroun, the goal was to save Rashid Khalifa’s voice; in Luka, the quest is to save his life. With more at stake, this story drew me in more quickly. The tongue-in-cheek video game references make the book’s structure more linear as Luka advances from one level to the next in his search for the Fire of Life which, as the name suggests, is the only thing that can save his father. From within Rashid’s stories, Luka grows closer to him as he travels—both in learning the inside of his father’s mind and through Nobodaddy’s eerie presence, which becomes more and more like his father’s with every chapter. Nobodaddy wins over Luka in his more Rashid-like moments and it’s interesting to see the “villain” consistently remind the hero of his mission in this way. As the story progresses, Nobodaddy’s increasing likability is balanced by the uncomfortable realization that Luka’s real father is ailing.

Often, this type of adventure story gets so caught up in the magical world that a reader can lose sight of what it’s all for. When this happens, the return to the real world at the novel’s close feels tacked on and jarring, even though it has been the goal of the story all along. But because Nobadaddy’s changing levels of transparency work as a barometer of Rashid Khalifa’s health, the reader never loses sight of the finish line. All-in-all, this makes the book feel well-rounded in a way that many others do not. Elements that might be cheesy elsewhere are hilarious. Rushdie’s writing is clear and self-aware. Silly puns and riddles abound and the old rules of fairy tales are strictly enforced. Most important: Luka and the Fire of Life is a proper quest story in all the best ways:

“And that’s why you’re trying to help us, isn’t it?” Luka concluded. “You don’t want to implode. You’re trying to save your own skin.”
“I don’t have skin,” said Nobodaddy.
“There’s a catch,” said Bear, the dog.
“There must be a catch,” said Dog, the bear.
“Ask him,” said Bear, the dog.
Nobodaddy took off his Panama hat, scratched his bald head, lowered his eyes, and sighed.
“Yes,” he said. “There’s a catch.”  (41-42)

Overall: 4.8 As much as I loved the wildness of Haroun, Luka’s tighter structure and high stakes won me over. The video game nods are well-placed and the accompanying cast has great chemistry.

Translation: Read Haroun, then read Luka. That’s right: You should read both. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Review: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie”

    1. The entire book is so quotable! The characters all have their own, unique voices and the tone of the book is warm and strange (in the best possible way).

      I am kicking myself hard for not picking up Rushdie sooner. I have Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights on my summer queue as well. I’m debating whether or not I should hold off though… maybe I should ration his books out. I can read them much faster than he can write them. 🙂

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