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Book Review: Luka And The Fire Of Life by Salman Rushdie

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Stories exist on levels most of us aren’t even aware of. We pick up a book, read the words written by an author, and usually we’ve forgotten what we’ve read by the time we pick up the next book, A whole world that somebody has strived to create is obliterated by our need to move on to what comes next, to our search for distraction and our need to be entertained. However, stories are what define people, give meaning to their lives and explain the world around them. In our culture we have the Bible, and while some might not like to hear it defined in this manner, the stories contained in its pages shape the way most of us think, and have been the motivation behind the majority of decisions that have shaped our world.

What happens to one of those worlds created by an author after we’ve moved on to something else? In the case of stories like those recounted in The Bible, or other holy books still being followed, there’s no question the people and events talked about are still real to those who believe in them. But what about those Gods and Goddesses who are no longer actively worshipped? What about other worlds created and populated by authors throughout the ages? Do they cease to exist when we no longer read about them, or is there some alternate reality in which those people brought to life continue leading the lives we dropped in on for the brief moments allowed us by the author’s imagination? Does the storyteller’s power extend beyond the boundaries of our attention span?

In his newest novel, Luka And The Fire Of Life published by Random House Canada, Salman Rushdie manages to not only create a fantastical world and a great adventure for his young hero to explore and experience, he gives us an intriguing look at the relationships between stories, their listeners and the way the two come together to shape the world around them. While it contains most of the elements we’ve come to expect from a tale involving a hero’s quest, its the twist and turns he throws in for him to navigate that makes this one special

Luka is the youngest son of the renowned storyteller Rashid Khalifa, known to some as the Shah of Blah for his love of talking. From the very first he was an amazing child – he amazed his parents with his birth as he came so late in their lives; 18 years after his older brother Haroun.

Young Luka soon shows that he is going to be different from other children. Maybe it is the fact that he is left-handed that gives him a different perspective on the world – having to struggle with doorknobs that are apparently backwards can have an odd impact on you. Perhaps it is because he grows up the son of a storyteller hearing about the wonderful alternative reality known as Magic World, but he spends a great deal of time imaging different worlds – including his personal favourite where everything works counter-clockwise to suit his left-handed abilities.

Luka’s two closest companions are his two pets, Bear the singing dog and Dog the dancing Bear. One day a particularly nasty circus, known as the Great Rings of Fire for its “Famous Incredible Fire Illusion”, comes to town. It is one of those which relies on abusing animals to make them perform for an audience’s pleasure.

Luka and his father are in town when the circus parades through and the young lad is so distraught at the sight of the poor animals he shouts at the circus owner “May your animals stop obeying your commands and your rings of fire burn up your stupid tent”. Much to the audience’s amazement, at the first performance in town, all the animals stand up to the ringmaster and refuse to obey his commands. When later that same night, after everybody is asleep, the circus’s big tent burns to the ground, people begin to wonder at the power of Luka’s words. While all the other animals escape into the wilderness, Bear the singing dog and Dog the dancing bear, show up at Luka’s door and make their gratitude known by becoming his boon companions.

While Luka is thus reasonably content, he still yearns for the chance to have a great adventure and dreams of alternate realities where they might take place. It should therefore not surprise anyone that he spends quite a bit of time playing computer role-playing games where he can send himself on adventures into an incredible variety of worlds. It turns out it is good thing he has taken the time to prepare himself, because soon he is faced with having a very real adventure of his own.

A day comes when Rashid says his legs feel heavy, then his arms and finally his body. Eventually he falls asleep and can’t be woken. It soon becomes apparent that this was no natural sleep, and Luka discovers that it was caused by the evil circus ringmaster seeking revenge for making him look foolish. Thankfully he also discovers the means of reviving his father. All he’ll have to do is travel to the World of Magic, steal the Fire of Life and somehow return home with it for his father.

The world Luka and his faithful companions enter in their attempt to save his father turns out to be strangely familiar. He soon recognizes landmarks and countries that have all appeared in his father’s stories, yet at the same time there are elements that reflect his own experiences. For, every time he manages to accomplish a task he is rewarded with the gift of extra “lives” to spend, much like one would gain by accumulating points in a video game (A running tally of his lives magically appears as a number in the upper left hand corner of his vision). He is also given the opportunity to save his progress through the world so he won’t have to go all the way back to beginning if he should lose one of his lives. At the same time, while some of the characters he meets on the way are those he’s heard his father describe, a number of them are based on people from his own life and share many of their characteristics.

What Rushdie has done with his story of Luka’s adventures is not only create a rather whimsical adventure quest that audiences of all ages can enjoy, he’s also offered a wry commentary on the whole idea of stories and how they influence us. At first Luka is content to merely follow the path laid out by his father’s stories in his attempt to transverse the various strange lands and creatures he encounters. However he soon realizes he’ll not succeed unless he starts exerting his own will on events and searches for his own path to success.

We all have our own lives to lead, and what Rushdie has very gently pointed out in his book is while we might look upon other’s accomplishments with envy and admiration, it’s only by striking out on our path that we will realize our full potential. For while the stories that have come before us will definitely influence us, and have shaped the world around us, we are all given unique characteristics that allow us to write our own story.

With humour and intelligence Rushdie’s book shows just how important our choices are and the importance of exerting our influence on the world around us. You don’t have to blindly follow in anyone’s footsteps, in fact you’ll be far better off if you don’t, and while those trapped in stories might be fated to repeat the same meaningless actions over and over again, there’s no reason for an individual to do so.

Our world, or more specifically our cultures and our societies, have been shaped by the stories we have told ourselves for thousands of years. Everything from how we behave to who and what we worship and believe are based on we’ve been told and re-told hundreds if not thousands of time before. While they all serve the valuable purpose of providing frameworks within which people can carry out there lives, there is also plenty of room within all of them for individuals to create their own stories based on their hopes, dreams and experiences.

Luka And The Fire Of Life not only is a wonderful read for the diversity of its characters and the fantastical worlds it takes us to, but for the way in which it reminds us not to ignore what each of us has to bring to the world and the power we have to shape events. Just because a story has been told a thousand times before doesn’t mean it can’t have a different ending every so often.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Sharess of Blah

    The first intelligent review I have read on this book. As well as being about the way we tell stories and shape the stories of our lives it is about how those stories are the things that shape us, themselves creating the conditions for the next stories that are told.