Thursday, November 4, 2010: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Luka and the Fire of Life

Random House: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Random House: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Random House: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Random House: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Luka and the Fire of Life

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie, which goes on sale on November 16. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Random House Publishing Group has helped support the issue.



Random House: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Books & Authors

Salman Rushdie: Man Is the Storytelling Animal

When we spoke with Salman Rushdie, he had recently finished the screenplay of Midnight's Children and hopes to complete the movie by the end of the year. He was also nearly a quarter of the way through his memoir, which he says is "about the problem I've developed of having an interesting life." We talked with him about why he wrote a book for each of his sons on the cusp of their adolescence and how the works tapped into the larger themes of his life philosophy.


 The author with his son Milan.

Did you write Haroun and the Sea of Stories for your oldest son, Zafar? And was that your first book after the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses?

When I was writing The Satanic Verses, Zafar said that he thought it was disappointing that I didn't write books that he could read. Until then, I hadn't thought about writing for children. I told him, "Let me finish what I'm writing now, and then I'll write one you can read." Then everything that happened happened, and I thought it was right that I should keep that promise. I'd had the germ of the idea of Haroun before I started Satanic Verses, so I knew where to begin. And I kept that promise to what was then my only son.

Milan is now 13. He was very aware that Haroun was written for his older brother. The principle of equality demanded that I write another one. The experience of Haroun has been one of the most joyful in my life. It's had a very rich afterlife: It's put on at schools, it was a New York City opera, there have been puppet theater versions of it. I didn't want to return to the Sea of Stories, so the question was how to find another imaginative world and how to go back there.


Haroun tells Luka, "You've reached the age at which people in this family cross the border into the magical world." Is there a significance to the age of 12?

Not exactly 12, but that borderland when children can seem extraordinarily wise and confident and at other times are still little children. That particular moment is fascinating. It's a magical time.


In Luka, everyone seems to seek a kind of "forgetfulness." In the Real World people go to Obliviums ("giant malls where everyone went to dance, shop, pretend, and forget") and in the World of Magic, they travel on the Flying Carpet into Oblivion. As a culture, are we forgetting our past?

I think those moments in the book sprang from the sense that as a culture we're losing our memory. We don't have a long, deep connection to the past in the way that humans always have. If you don't understand the past, you don't understand why things are the way they are now. Living in a culture where there's Muzak and everything's brightly lit, you lose something.


There's also that poignant quote from Soraya, "Magic is fading from the universe. We aren't needed anymore, or that's what you all think, with your High Definitions, and low expectations."

In the age in which we live, she's suggesting that we may be turning away from that side of human nature, which is fanciful and dreaming and magical, and being forced into a more narrow and impoverished side of human nature.


And that relates to Luka's defense when he gets close to the Ring of Fire: when he says to the gods, "Look at you! Instead of real Powers you have Beauty Contests!"

Certainly it's true that once upon a time--frankly, within living memory, my own memory--you could assume that people you were talking to would have a certain level of knowledge about mythology, the world of Greek or Roman gods, and when you mentioned Jupiter or Apollo, people would know who you were talking about. That's no longer the shared knowledge of our culture. There are other forms of shared knowledge; we all know who's on Jersey Shore. But that might be a lower form of shared knowledge. Creative art is the way to maintain our connection to a world that is rich and powerful in meaning. Only through its retellings can we preserve it. This book is in a little way an attempt to do that.


Do you think as a culture, we're losing our connection to words and story?

I don't know if we are. I do think--and it's a phrase I often use--one of the most intrinsic things about us is that we're storytelling animals. The need to understand the world through our stories is profoundly embedded in human nature. When I'm feeling optimistic, I feel this activity cannot die out. When children are born, one of the first things they want is to be told a story. We tell about our families, our countries, our religions as a way of understanding the culture in which we live. Through story, we come to understand each other and ourselves. I've been a believer in the profound power of storytelling at the center of human life.


In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, there's a passage that talks about the ocean holding the stories "in fluid form, that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive." That made me wonder about your view of e-books. Do you see the Internet like that Ocean of the Streams of Story?

Somebody wrote a story in which I was given credit for foreseeing the possibilities of the Internet, with that very passage you quoted from Haroun. It appears as though I invented the Internet. [Laughter.] My son Milan has an iPad, and I don't, and I'm enormously envious of it. Frankly, I have a Kindle, but I don't use it. But the e-book experience on the iPad is significantly better than anything I've seen before. I like the idea of the literal storytelling possibilities of the Internet, and the way in which, through this wonderful world of hyperlinks, stories can be connected.


[Spoiler Alert…]

Does Bear (the dog) give up his immortality because he sees what immortality does to the gods? Or out of love for Luka? Luka talks about how the idea of immortality "strikes him as more frightening than exciting."

I think that moment was about two things, really. If you say in a book, somebody's got to die, you cannot duck that issue. The book is about life and death, and if the figure of death comes and says, "The catch is somebody's got to die," then you have to fulfill your contract with the reader. And you have to show readers that life is real; you don't get a free pass, without dealing with the thing that was a catch.

And yes, the love Bear has for Luka. If you really think about it, do you really want to be immortal? Do you want to be 6,000 years old and everyone else you know is dead? Do you want to outlive your life and time? If all you had to do was eat a potato to live forever, would you do it or not? And they deal with it quite beautifully: they put it in the pantry to decide another day. Do you really want to live 6,000 years, or is this life enough? Soraya is the wise character, and she thinks life is life and that's plenty. Readers have to make up their own minds about that.


Random House: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Book Brahmin: Salman Rushdie

On your nightstand now:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and advance reading copies of Saul Bellow's Letters and The Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (a history of cancer).

Favorite book when you were a child:

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.

Your top five authors:

Miguel de Cervantes, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow.

Book you've faked reading:

I don't fake reading books.

Book you are an evangelist for:

The Artie Cohen thrillers of my friend Reggie Nadelson. (Latest title: Body Count.) Most underrated thriller writer in America.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Only art books: about Magritte, Picasso, Clemente, dozens of painters.

Book that changed your life:

Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum

Favorite line from a book:

"Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls." --Ulysses, James Joyce

or, maybe,

"In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid."--Joseph Heller, Something Happened.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez 



Book Review

Children's Review: Luka and the Fire of Life

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie (Random House, $25.00 Hardcover, 9780679463368, November 2010)

If the question at the center of Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" then the central question in Luka and the Fire of Life could well be, "What is the use of stories that no longer matter?" Salman Rushdie creates a powerful and provocative fable for our times. He sets his story in a culture that once shared a common foundation of Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology, Alice in Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes, but its citizens now seek a collective amnesia. They have begun to forget their history and turn their backs on the past.

In the city of Kahani, where Rashid Khalifa the storyteller, his wife, Soraya, and his two sons, Haroun and Luka, make their home, the townsfolk visit Obliviums, "giant malls where everyone went to dance, shop, pretend, and forget." Twelve-year-old Luka, like his peers, joins "imaginary communities in cyberspace." His mother bemoans the "useless skills" he hones with his "pisps" and "wees." But Luka is completely present on the day the circus comes to town. The Ringmaster of the Great Rings of Fire, Captain Aag, reputedly mistreats his animals. Luka curses "Grandmaster Flame." He calls out, "May your animals stop obeying your commands and your rings of fire eat up your stupid tent." Luka's curse works. The next morning, a dog wearing the nametag "Bear" and a bear sporting the nametag "Dog" show up at Luka's doorstep. Haroun, whose mission quest at age 12 was the subject of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, tells Luka, "You've reached the age at which people in this family cross the border into the magical world. It's your turn for an adventure." One month and a day later, on a "beautiful starry night," Haroun's prediction comes true. Rashid Khalifa, "the legendary storyteller of Kahani," falls asleep. "Nobody could wake him." Luka receives a message from Captain Aag, delivered by seven vultures, suggesting that Luka bears responsibility for this turn of events, and outside his window, Luka sees a man who looks exactly like his father.

With this shadow figure, called "Nobodaddy," Rushdie constructs a detailed parallel world, the world of Rashid Khalifa's stories. Once Luka recognizes this "World of Magic" for what it is, he feels at ease ("He had grown up hearing about it from his father every day, and he had believed in it"). There's just one enormous catch: Nobodaddy explains that "once someone like me has been summoned... someone alive must pay for that summons with a life." Can Luka save his father? And even if he does, will Nobodaddy still collect a life? Luka becomes a player in a metafictional game. With wit and skill, the boy dodges the traps set by the Old Man of the River, who taunts Luka with his riddles. Luka knows the answers because his father has told him all the stories. Finally, the boy poses a question to the Old Man: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" He knows the Old Man won't get it because Rashid himself never remembers the riddle's answer. Rushdie then moves from the ridiculous to the sublime. As Luka ponders the River of Time, he asks himself perhaps the oldest riddle in human history: "If the Future already existed, then perhaps it didn't matter what he, Luka, did next, because no matter how hard he was trying to save his father's life, maybe Rashid Khalifa's fate had already been decided. But if the Future could be shaped, in part, by his own actions, then would the River change its course depending on what he did?... Who was finally in charge?"

Through the construct of a fable, Rushdie invites young readers to consider life's deepest questions. He suggests that, as human beings, we need story to make sense of our lives, to understand our history and to plan the future. Soon after Luka, Dog and Bear meet Nobodaddy, this shadow-self of Rashid says to the young hero, "You of all boys should know that Man is the Storytelling Animal, and that in stories are his identity, his meaning, and his lifeblood." Rushdie seems to say: to forget those stories is to lose one's identity, to lose one's sense of purpose, to lose one's life.

Even at the darkest points of Luka's mission, we have the feeling that he is never truly alone. Not only does he have Dog (the bear) and Bear (the dog) as his companions, but Dog also looks and sounds (in the World of Magic, Dog can speak) a bit like Haroun, and the flamboyant Queen of Ott bears the same name as his mother. Luka acquires other trusty companions, such as two Elephant Birds who drink from the River of Time. They of course remember everything--a lovely contrast to the people of Kahani ("Memory is the fuel you need" to travel the River of Time, Nobodaddy advises).

Luka's greatest weapon, naturally, turns out to be his keen attention to his father's stories, and also to the craft of storytelling. Within striking distance of the Fire of Life, Luka makes a brilliant case for why the denizens of the World of Magic should grant him passage: "Let's be frank, how many people other than Rashid Khalifa are really bothering to keep your story going nowadays?" says he. "Look at you! Instead of real Powers, you have Beauty Contests.... It's only through Stories that you can get out into the Real World and have some sort of power again." His quest does not end there. Luka must find his way back to the Real World. As Rashid liked to say, "We don't know the answers to the great questions of who we are and what we are capable of until the questions are asked." Many of the answers Luka seeks lie within the stories Rashid told him. But, ultimately, Luka can find the answers only within himself. If he wants to reach the summit of the Mountain of Knowledge and discover the Fire of Life, "he must make the final ascent alone," according to his father.

Rushdie also asks us to consider what is most important through his meditations on the passage of time. On the lighthearted side, he introduces a time loop (the Inescapable Whirlpool and the El Tiempo time trap, which Luka and company encounter on a Flying Carpet; he repeats one long phrase in the narrative over and over), and on the weightier side, he examines the concept of unending time, both through the gods and their Beauty Contests, and also the Queen's Ott Potatoes, which promise immortality. Would we wish to outlive those we love, the people at the center of our own personal narratives?

Rushdie offers many layers at which adults and children may consider his multi-tiered fable. As Storytelling Animals, we have a responsibility to impart tales to the next generation. "All his life, ever since Rashid Khalifa started telling him stories, Luka had wondered about the Torrent of Words that fell to earth from the Sea of Stories.... What would that look like, that waterfall tumbling from space? It must be wonderful to behold." Most of all, this master storyteller leaves readers with the understanding that our stories are our legacy. --Jennifer M. Brown



Powered by: Xtenit