Review: Luka and the Fire of Life

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.)

luka-and-the-fire-of-life_coverNote: 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. 🙂

Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories

haroun-and-the-sea-of-stories_coverIn college, I skimmed a terrible book* by Salman Rushdie and crossed my fingers that it would be relevant for two days of discussion then forgotten. It wasn’t and I tanked multiple papers in succession. This sour experience struck Rushdie from my list of intriguing authors. It wasn’t until a decade later when I perused a list of his books that I realized he didn’t write The Terrible Book. Only now do I realize how much I’ve missed out. Rushdie is brilliant!

By the time I turned to the second page of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I was grinning ear-to-ear, feeling like a ten-year-old in anticipation of a bedtime story. I’m so stoked over this first page (page 15 in my edition) that here it is, [nearly] in full:

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.

In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.

And in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by the name of Haroun, the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, whose cheerfulness was famous throughout that unhappy metropolis, and whose never-ending stream of tall, short and winding tales had earned him not one but two nicknames. To his admirers he was Rashid the Ocean of Notions, as stuffed with cheery stories as the sea was full of glumfish; but to his jealous rivals he was the Shah of Blah. To his wife, Soraya, Rashid was for many years as loving a husband as anyone could wish for, and during these years Haroun grew up in a home in which, instead of misery and frowns, he had his father’s ready laughter and his mother’s sweet voice raised in song.

Then something went wrong. (15)

If you’re still here (and not off reading Haroun, where you should be), I’ll provide a quickie synopsis: Haroun’s father, the Ocean of Notions, runs out of stories. No one knows why until Haroun runs into a water genie disconnecting his father’s subscription to the Great Story Stream of Kahani (an invisible moon). He confiscates the Water Genie’s Disconnecting Tool and holds it ransom until his father’s connection can be restored. What follows is a bizarre adventure with telepathic hoopoes, tone-deaf regals, and shadow warriors from the dark side of Kahani. In trying to restore his father’s subscription, Haroun is pulled into a larger battle to save the story sea from being poisoned by Khattam-Shud:

“Khattam-Shud,” he said slowly, “is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech. And because everything ends, because dreams end, stories end, life ends, at the finish of everything we use his name. ‘It’s finished,’ we tell one another, ‘it’s over. Khattam-Shud: The End.'” (39)

Haroun runs according to its own logic. Does it make sense that Rashid Khalifa’s stories come to him via an invisible tap? Nope; his subscription is managed by a P2C2E (Process Too Complicated To Explain) while mechanical miracles are handled by M2C2Ds (Machines Too Complicated To Describe). In the hands of a lesser writer, these P2C2Es and M2C2Ds would be improperly deployed as deus ex machinas. Instead, Rushdie makes heaviest use of them at the story’s outset to define his world’s curious logic and cue the reader to expect anything. They’re not used to fix things in a clumsy, too-convenient way. They explain why things are the way they are and provide a jumping-off point for the actual story.

Rushdie constructs his story differently than your typical coming-of-age-via-trip-to-magical-realm fantasy and the people of Kahani mirror those from Haroun’s real life. This adds a dreamy quality and allows him to flesh out multiple characters at once. That the two worlds complement each other makes the return to the real world at the story’s close feel satisfying instead of like a cheap “and then they woke up” coda. Each character speaks in a unique, defined voice which enables a reader to more easily track characters between the two worlds.

Overall: 4.4 This book was fun with lots of clever wordplay. The shifts from wonderment to suspense are well-managed. It reads in a single sitting and is vivacious and fresh.

Translation: Read it and then read Luka and the Fire of Life.

Careful readers with keen observational powers may notice that this review makes no mention of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge I’m participating in. I read Haroun a week before the challenge started and kicked it off with Luka and The Fire of Life. In writing my review for Luka, I realized I needed to start here as the books are linked and reading Haroun first allows the reader to more fully appreciate Luka’s adventure.

*I wonder if the book is as bad as I remember or if I was too busy sulking over the professor’s teaching style. She liked to spout her highbrow/pretentious theory at the start of each book with a lecture to “think about this as you read” and despised counter-theories that attempted to make sense of the book as a whole instead of cherry-picked passages.