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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Salman Rushdie, Luka and the Fire of Life

Abstract

Luka and the Fire of Life is a children's fantasy, adopting Rushdie's usual mode of magic realism. However, as a fantasy novel Luka is unconvincing and undramatic, and although the novel has an interesting twist on magic realism as it is set within a computer game, Rushdie misses the opportunity to comment upon virtual culture in an insightful way.

Essay

Magic realism is a tricky genre to get right. A sufficient quantity of magic can provide an oblique view of our own world, better illustrating the fuzzy and bewildering parameters of reality than realism alone could. Midnight’s Children (1980), for example, shows how the post-colonial, Indian self emerges from a bewildering mixture of influences: Western cinema and Eastern mysticism, real-world politics and imaginary stories. Just as Saleem is multi-cultural, so too is the novel multi-generic. The magic alongside the realism here is not merely an indulgent fantasy, but a way of grasping an otherwise incomprehensible political issue, and what’s more of making us aware of just how hard it is to comprehend such that Rushdie has had to resort to the imaginary or magical even to attempt to represent it.

Too much magic, on the other hand, and the novel can turn into a mere farce. This is the fate of Rushdie’s 2010 novel, Luka and the Fire of Life. Like its companion Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Luka is ostensibly a children’s story; Rushdie says that he wrote the book for his thirteen year-old son. Magic realism has its progenitors in the fairy tale, and is therefore a familiar genre for children’s literature. But although a children’s book, Luka is intended as more than a book for children (and a thirteen-year old is surely pushing this definition). However, it fails to engage a more mature reader.

The premise of Luka is that Rashid, storytelling father of the young hero, Luka, has been placed in a coma by the curse of an angry circusmaster. In an attempt to reawaken his dying father, Luka enters the imaginary realm of his father’s mind, by taking a wrong left turn in his own world. So far, so conventionally unconventional. Things get more unusual as Luka’s journey takes the form of a computer game. Luka plays games obsessively, with the approval of Rashid who sees their colourful worlds as not unlike those contained within his own imagination. Luka must travel through progressively more difficult levels, up to level nine where he must steal the restorative Fire of Life. Early on, Luka intuitively (to the practiced computer gamer) gains several hundred lives by collecting mushrooms and other random objects, and he then battles to keep his lives through the various dangers he faces. At different stages in his journey, there are various save points to reach, usually bringing with them another addition to Luka’s eclectic party of companions, from a duck-elephant to a magic-carpet riding otter.

Populated with such a rich array of characters, Luka’s various fights and his own party of companions might make this seem like a skewed version of Tolkien. But Rushdie is not trying to be satirical here, only colourfully light-hearted: there is a memorable coyote who talks like a parody of a Mexican bandit; when Luka steals the fire, it sets off the Fire Alarm, which brings all the gods from history running; Luka’s father is saved by eating an Ott Potato.

This childish realm is all good fun, then. But looking beneath the surface it is also a bit dull – much as behind the glossy graphics many computer games have little underlying narrative. The problem here is that the novel is not entirely phantasmagorical, but instead opens in a more magically realist mode, with Luka’s imaginary realm a rift in the continuum of normal life. A Tolkien fantasy thrills because it is completely separate from our own, and regulated by its own carefully denoted rules and mythology. As in a game, nobody really dies in a Tolkien novel, but we cannot help but flinch when a hobbit meets a dragon which is definitively more dangerous than a dwarf according to the world’s internally established principles.

Yet when the magical runs parallel to the real world, as in Rushdie, any dangers of the imaginary realm are flattened. The magical is always only hypothetical in contrast to actual reality, having only such power as is conferred by the sound of a name on the page: the Sumerian dragon, the Spotted Kerberos, the Rainbirds of China, the Aalim, the Shang Yang. Towards the end of the novel, as Luka encounters a danger that is allegedly worse than his last, he wonders: “Every time I think we’ve cracked it, there’s another impossible object in my way.” Living under the suspension of disbelief in a Tolkien novel or a computer game, the titan he encounters next would certainly be a stumbling block. But in Luka’s game world, is the titan worse than the level nine Rain Cat? Is the latter worse than the blaster-wielding Old Man of the River at level one? Probably not, because in the exotically humorous atmosphere within this imaginary bubble, nothing is truly dangerous compared to the physical world outside. Luka’s encounters bounce him from one thing to the next, each one a game, and non with any particular sense of tension or drama. Perhaps recognising this aesthetic problem, Rushdie has the artificial device of Luka’s game lives, with danger being registered by the corresponding number of lives each threatens to take away. But as any gamer knows, even this is only a partial risk: it is always an option simply to restart the game.

If this is pitched as a children’s book, then, there can surely be nothing worse than to deliver a world filled with monsters that are ultimately not scary. But one suspects that Rushdie also has his eyes on more significant things. Albeit that Rushdie is not aiming to write a political novel like Midnight’s Children, this novel still has the potential to do something interesting within the parameters of a childish fantasy, just as Philip Pullman intelligently mythologises the Bible in His Dark Materials. In the case of Luka, Rushdie might have done far more to engage with the context of computer games. Much as Midnight’s Children uses magic to distinguish between different types of fictitious and true history, with its initial interesting premise Luka might have provided Rushdie with the opportunity to meditate on the distinctions between the real and the virtual.

Is there a case for arguing that, in our posthuman, cyborg, web-based modernity we too live in a world that has become magical? Sherry Turkle, for example, has reported on obsessive players of online multiplayer games who believe they are truly married when they have conducted a ceremony with a virtual character they have never met in person. The boundaries between the embodied life and life on the screen are confused, just as they have always been in magic realism. Our factual existence looks increasingly like it is constituted of fictions, a game played through the browsers and phones via which we conduct relationships at a remove from the physical. But Rushdie does not comment upon this through his novel. Luka is no more about computer games than Midnight’s Children is about pickle factories. The environment is merely a metaphorical function rather than the aim of Rushdie’s narrative. The lack of a serious consideration of pickling factories is hardly a problem in Midnight’s Children, which has its sights set on other, weightier matters. But it is an opportunity missed in Luka, which has its eyes set on, well, not very much interesting or challenging at all.

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This page was published on August 7, 2012 | Keywords: Salman Rushdie, computer games, magic realism, Luka and the Fire of Life

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