Because of the noise surrounding Salman Rushdie's career as a highbrow novelist and as one the most debated freedom-of-speech icons in recent history, it's easy to overlook the fact that the man is a children's author of mesmerizing power. This came through 20 years ago with the publication of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and is now reconfirmed by the book's coda, Luka and the Fire of Life an allegorical tale with Haroun's younger brother, 12-year-old Luka, as its hero.
The new book is powered by a quest. Luka's father, the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, has been cursed into an unrousable sleep, possibly a preamble to his death. Luka must navigate various worlds, negotiate the folds of time, contest the scheming wrath and unexpected blessings of many gods and bring home the Fire of Life that can save his father. The boy's original allies on this task are a dog called Bear and a bear called Dog, which brings to mind Yann Martel's Life of Pi (in which a castaway child's grumpy comrade is a mean-mouthed tiger). But en route, Luka's entourage gathers in its train, among others, Nobodaddy (Rashid's alter apparition), coyotes with an American-prairie drawl, and Soraya, a sassy siren empress who floats about on King Solomon's magic carpet.
Yes, this is a busy book, and its overall cast sometimes feels a little like Ramayana meets Avatar ("Jackal-headed Egyptian deities, fierce scorpion and Jaguar-men, giant one-eyed, man-eating Cyclopes, flute-playing centaurs ..."). But the overall impression is richness rather than clutter. In a clever appeal to modern juvenile sensibilities, the novel is built like a video game, with Luka having to pass through swiftly turning layers of challenges and setbacks. To measure up to the pyrotechnics of electronic gaming, Rushdie writes with crisp, delicious panic ("The sky was falling," opens one chapter). Language rises off the page like an unstoppered bottle of rare attar: it arrests with its glamorous foreignness but its intent is to return the reader to what is achingly familiar the desire to follow a story to its end. The drama, here, is language.
With manic aplomb, Rushdie also revisits themes that have defined and devastated his life: freedom and its opposite. One of the worlds Luka travels through is the Respectorate of I, a land of monstrous Rats, easily offended and quick to castigate. Perhaps a shadow of the author's years in exile, the Respectorate of I, with its quirky puns and madcap exaggerations, is most suggestive of today. These are times, after all, when avuncular Danish cartoonists are imperiled with murder.
The two possible ways to slip into this fabular, roguish narrative are not necessarily antithetical to each other. For adult readers, Luka and the Fire of Life flirts with mythological recasting, especially Promethean (and, indeed, Prometheus has a cameo). Then there's Rushdie's deconstruction of time, in which the triptych of past, present and future exist all at once, perhaps a nod to the Indian metaphysical concept of time as samay, wherein all three tenses occur in unison.
But, a wiser way of relishing this story is as a child, not with a suspension of disbelief but an employment of wonderment. When devoured through the giddy eyes of someone not yet the legal drinking age, the book flings forth an extravagance of intoxicating joys: the discovery that children can, and must, rescue adults; imaginative abandon that underscores real time's poignant dearth; and the idea that without narrative there is no life. Midway through Luka's terrific adventure, Soraya mourns, "Magic is fading from the Universe." Rushdie might have two words for her: Not yet.