Monday, January 24, 2011

Whose Reality Is It, Anyway? Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

"In the real world there are no levels, only difficulties."

Luka's mother Soraya means well when she delivers her down-to-earth warning to her video-game-loving son, but her wisdom is ignored in the premise of Salman Rushdie's latest, Luka and the Fire of Life: A Novel (Random House, 2010), a sprawling novel which can be as tediously tantalizing as the video games it mocks with its fantastic characters and twisting levels.

Fourteen-year-old Luka's father, Rashid Khalifa, is known to the family as the Shah of Blah for his storytelling, his endlessly convoluted fairy tales of the World of Magic, but when Luka's curse upon a cruel circus master comes back to strike his father down in a deadly sleep from which he cannot be wakened, it is those magical tales, those eternal riddles planted in Luka's mind, that are eventually his salvation.

A visit to his unconscious father's room one starry night convinces his son that his father is doomed unless he can be awakened. Gazing out his window, Luka is amazed to see a figure which seems to be his father, but when he runs outside, accompanied by his pets--a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear, he finds that midnight doppelganger is a magical avatar which is stealing his father's essence, growing stronger every minute. In his father's warm voice this "Nobodaddy" explains to Luka that his father will inevitably fade from being and that his only salvation lies in Luka's braving the World of Magic to steal the Fire of Life at its center.

Luka's quest is the heart of the novel, a journey through many strange places which evoke Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, and every other childhood hero quest of literature. In his journey Luka must take great leaps of faith, decipher eternal riddles, acquiring allies, the Insultana of Ott and her flying carpet and two elephant birds with infinite memories, and face down every manner of fantastical being. Winning and expending lives as in his favorite games, he moves up the River of Time to Level Nine, the final confrontation with the restive and half-forgotten gods of history--Norse, Mayan, Chinese, Greek, and the rest, where he suddenly comes to understand a great truth and reveals it to his revengeful foes:
"It's my turn to speak now," Luka hollered. "You see, I know something you don't know about the World of isn't your World! It doesn't even belong to the Aalim, whoever they are. This is my father's World. I'm sure there are other Magic Worlds dreamed up by other people. Wonderlands and Narnias, and Middle-Earths and whatnot, and I don't know, maybe there are some such Worlds that dreamed themselves up--but this one, gods and goddesses, ogres and bats, monsters, and slimy things, is the World of Rashid Khalifa, the fabulous Shah of Blah.

And the plain truth is that if I don't get the Fire of Life to him before it's too late, he isn't the only one who will come to an end. Everything here will vanish, too."

Luka wins over the mythological community, but then must face the Aalim, those immortal weavers of the Loom of Days:

"Can't you see it? The calamity of this whole World? Don't you want to save it?" Luke argues. "That's what I'm trying to do."

"It is of no consequence to us whether his World lives or dies," came the reply.

"All things must pass. Only Time itself endures. Happiness, friendship, love, suffering, pain, are fleeting illusions, like shadows on a wall. Only this knowledge is Wisdom."

But Luka fights back with his own very human existential Wisdom:

"Give me a break. The Future is a dream, and nobody knows how it will turn out. The only sure thing is that we--Bear, Dog, my family, my friends and us--we will make it whatever it is, good or bad, happy or sad."

Luka and the Fire of Life: A Novel, companion book to his earlier Haroun and the Sea of Stories, nearly defies description. The multiple-award-winning Rushdie brings almost more to the table--encyclopedic literary history, wordplay, over-the-top magical realism--than the reader here can assimilate into a meaningful whole. Luka's mission is part Nintendo-style gaming, part philosophical allegory, and part a literary scherzo which plays hide-and-seek with the many quest tales of literature.

There is plenty here for readers on many levels to laugh at, squirm through, and ponder over on the way to Luka's conquest, but as Luka's mother points out, ultimately our daily lives still must find a way to deal with those same "difficulties," even when, as Rushdie observes, his young readers, like "Luka live in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities has begun to be sold as toys." As reviewer Mark Athitakis of the New York Times concludes, "The book offers many reminders that those difficulties will be hard to shake, no matter how digitized our unmagical world becomes."

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