What a father Salman Rushdie would make! Imagine being read to from a book that opens with "a boy named Luka who had two pets, a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear." And then to learn that the former "was an expert dancer, able to get up onto his hind legs and perform with subtlety and grace the waltz, the polka, the rhumba, the wah-watusi, and the twist, as well as dances from nearer home, the pounding bhangra, the twirling ghoomar (for which he worse a wide mirror-worked skirt), the warrior dances known as the spaw and the thang-ta, and the peacock dance of the south." For Rushdie is a wizard with words, taking us in a sentence from ordinary to exotic and back again. This is a book for children to hear with wonder and for adults to understand, for Rushdie's range of reference (and fondness for erudite puns) is immense.
Luka Khalifa is the much younger brother of the title character in HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES, Rushdie's earlier fantasy for the child in all of us. His father, the great storyteller, the Shah of Blah, is in a coma and Luka must journey into the Magic World to steal the Fire of Life before his being is sucked away by the spectral Nobodaddy, who becomes more and more visible as he empties the dying man of his substance. The quest involves the assistance of elephant-headed Memory Birds, a shape-changing dragon called Nuthog, and the benevolent but fierce-speaking Insultana of Ott, who provides a magic carpet to take Luka much of the way to his destination. But Luka is no shrinking violet himself. He started the whole chain of events by cursing a cruel circus-owner so effectively that the animals revolted, and he can hold his own in a battle of riddles with a terminator-blasting Old Man of the River, or in a rigged trial presided over by the god Ra, who speaks only in Egyptian hieroglyphics. This is not a book to read in a single sitting; the point is less the journey than the encounters along the way, each chapter having its own atmosphere and treasure-trove of wonders.
I don't know if I was simply in a more receptive mood, or if it actually the better book, but I enjoyed this a great deal more than its predecessor. I remember thinking that HAROUN suffered from being too close to a video game such as MARIO BROTHERS, but here the connection is quite explicit and oddly enough it works even better. Luka is a modern boy, quite at home in the electronic world; he is hardly surprised to find a life-counter in the top left-hand corner of his vision, and he knows which objects to punch to replenish his store. The modernity helps to anchor the book, to bring the vaguely Indian setting closer to home -- as does the fact that Rushdie is no longer confined to his own mythology, but freely references Greek, Norse, Japanese, and other cultures as well. Indeed this is the point: in a modern world, where the old deities no longer wield their power, stories are the only means of giving them life. As Luka explains to the disgruntled deities in their broken-down pan-cultural Olympus: "When your story is well told, people believe in you; not in the way they used to believe, not in a worshipping way, but in the way people believe in stories -- happily, excitedly, wishing they wouldn't end." He might have been describing his own book.