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Washed up in the Heart of Magic

24 November 2010

Peggy Woodford reads a fable for children, but not just for them

Luka and the Fire of Life
Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

FABLES, by their nature, have to achieve perennial appeal across the age-range, and are difficult to write successfully without being twee or over-fanciful. They need bedrock credibility with a mythic twist, a difficult balance that Salman Rush­die first sought to achieve with Haroun and the Sea of Stories, writ­ten for his eldest son, followed by Luka and the Fire of Life, written for his 13-year-old son, Milan.

Milan/Luka, the 12-year-old hero, must save his father from a myster­ious sleep so deep that no one and nothing can wake him. He learns from the mysterious Nobo­daddy, the Shah of Blah (who oddly resembles his comatose father), that he must travel through the World of Magic to the Fire of Life, and bring a flame back to cure his father.

It is not going to be an easy jour­ney — they will have to negotiate the Torrent of Words, the Lake of Wisdom, the Mists of Time, and the Mountain of Knowledge en route. These clichés take on a new life of their own in Rushdie’s hands — partly ironical, but mainly magical, and sometimes hilarious. In fact, the whole book is infused with enga-ging humour.

Luka, when told about the ancient gods who live in the Heart of Magic, says to Nobodaddy: “To be honest, the Heart of Magic sounds a lot like an old folks’ home for washed-up heroes,” and, indeed, when they get there, it is all a sad mess: the pyramids are crumbling, the giant Nordic ash-tree is lying with its roots in the air, the Elysian Fields are empty and brown.

Nevertheless, they press on, and, with the help of some unusual companions and a Magic Carpet, finally reach their goal. But nothing is quite as it seems, and the finale, as the World of Magic dissolves into the Real one, is deftly achieved.

Luka and the Fire of Life is a chil­dren’s book, an adult book, and a magical book apt for Christmas — and it is beautifully written.

Rushdie said movingly of his two fables: “The thing that these books have in common is that the child has to rescue the parent, and I do think . . . many parents would say that the experience of having children was a salvation for them.”

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

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