Salman Rushdie has two sons, Zafar and Milan, born so far apart (1980, 1998) that each might as well be an only child. And to each of them he has dedicated a lyrical fantasy about a hapless story-telling father rescued by an omnicompetent young son. Rushdie reportedly wrote his first such tale, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), in response to Jafar’s request for a novel that children like him could read. Nobody knows whether Milan made the same request; but in either case, Papa did not quite deliver.
Like the adventures of Haroun, those of 12-year-old Luka are so packed with allusions (to ancient mythology, world literature and pop culture), wild wordplay and serious ideas (“Time is not only Itself, but is an aspect of Movement and Space”), that they hardly qualify as tween-lit. The framework of the “novel” may be the timeless folkloric quest for survival-and-rescue, but the superstructure Rushdie has built on it is utterly adult (except for the near-absence of sex). As in Haroun—which he wrote just after being fatwa-ed for The Satanic Verses—Rushdie appears in the self-mocking guise of Rashid Khalifa, the unstoppably loquacious “Shah of Blah,” painting himself out of the picture by his almost exclusive focus on the bold and precociously bright Luka, but then reinserting himself with the unmistakable authorial voice of S.R. The result may not qualify as a children’s classic, but it is a fine performance.
The plot revolves around Luka’s attempt to rescue Rashid from a vampiristic, ectoplasmic character called Nobodaddy (William Blake’s ferocious caricature of God the Father), who is slowly draining his life away. To stop this monster—who superficially resembles his father—Luka has to steal and bring back the Promethean Fire of Life (yes, Prometheus is in the cast and plays a crucial role), which demands an all-but-impossible river journey on the Argo and, later, a magic carpet into the World of Magic, with a lively assortment of helpers and hinderers. Among the former are a dog named Bear, a bear named Dog, Soraya, the Insultana of Ott, the “Otter queen” (but a sassy girl, not a mustelid) and a coyote who talks like a cowpoke (the Trickster figure).
As for the villains—well, they’re practically innumerable, a horrible mob of creatures like the Respecto-Rats, the seemingly all-powerful Lords of Time (Jo Hua, What Was; Jo Hai, What Is, and Jo Aiga, What Will Come), along with a vast horde of cranky, resentful, no-longer-believed-in gods from Sumeria to ancient Egypt to Japan to Scandinavia to Mexico. Rushdie maintains a demure silence on the living religions, but his contempt for superannuated deities is intense. It is a heady, fizzy Edward Learean-Joycean cocktail (best quaffed by adults); and if the outcome is never really in doubt, after a sluggish start the feats of derring-do pick up speed until the pace becomes delirious.
Rushdie’s touch throughout is light and assured. He never transports us to the enchanted realm of the Arabian Nights or the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales or Lewis Carroll or Kenneth Grahame—but then, how many writers do? The hallmark of the best magical storytelling seems to be the way it makes us accept the most astonishing and unlikely things as perfectly obvious, if not inevitable: Rumpelstiltskin? Quangle-Wangle Quee? The Jabber-wock? Mr. Toad? But of course! These things just are. Coleridge once criticized himself for over-moralizing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “It ought,” he said, “to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights’ tale of the merchant’s sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and lo! The genie starts up and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie’s son.”
Rushdie’s story likewise lets moralizing crowd out some of the magic. The loving son has to save his kind, learned but fallible father. The forces of evil, like Nobodaddy and his allies, have to be fought and overcome. Art has to vanquish stupidity and violence and bigotry and cruelty and hate. And naturally it all works out, as it “should.” Still, Rushdie the showman puts on a very good show. If, despite his best intentions, he sometimes overstresses the masculine side of life, we might recall that all of his four marriages have ended in divorce; so it is no surprise that he has no time for happy couples.
Father-and-son love is the game here, and it is played out in the imaginary world of literature, of every sort under the sun. The doting raconteur in the city of Kahani (Hindi for story), in the land of Alifbay (alphabet) is given new life by his splendid son, who is still young enough not to have any Oedipal issues with the old man or to view his fame with anything like irony. It is all warm, witty and wry—and a welcome relief from the fulminations of Grand Ayatollahs everywhere.