Book review | ‘Victory City’ is carried forward by Salman Rushdie’s infectious energy 

Styled as a translation of an ancient epic, Salman Rushdie’s Victory City balances light and dark, and is a celebration of the power of words

Updated - February 06, 2023 12:28 pm IST

Published - February 05, 2023 12:27 am IST

Read at the level of allegory, Victory City is a buoyant celebration of the power of words and the people who wield mastery over words

Read at the level of allegory, Victory City is a buoyant celebration of the power of words and the people who wield mastery over words | Photo Credit: iStock/Getty Images

Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Victory City, is a return in more senses than one. To state the obvious, it is a symbolic resurrection of his literary genius in the public domain after the grievous attack on him in New York last year. In another sense, the novel signals Rushdie’s homecoming to his signature style: that audacious medley of history, fantasy, myth, and whimsy he so loves to churn in the cauldron of fiction, building castles out of thin air and sprinkling his characters with the magic dust of his wicked imagination.

Behind Victory City stands novels like Shame (1983) and Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), but it is the shadow of The Enchantress of Florence (2008) that is most palpably spread over it. Both novels are set in historically rich periods — the first during the reign of Akbar the Great, and Victory City spanning the rise and fall of the Vijayanagara empire in the Deccan region. In each book, facts are liberally spiked with fables. Time’s arrow points ahead and backwards, defying logic and linearity, as characters set apart by centuries inhabit the same plane of existence. Finally, strong women form the beating hearts of both stories, each one a rebel and reformist in her own right.

Salman Rushdie’s Victory City

Salman Rushdie’s Victory City

Whispered history

The rise and fall of Victory City (literally, Vijayanagara) is presided over by the “blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess” Pampa Kampana through her long lifespan of 247 years. Blessed by the goddess Parvati with the gift of defiant old age when she was a girl of nine, Pampa Kampana has the unique fortune of overseeing several generations of her line. Above all, she is the creator and nurturer of Rushdie’s titular city, having dreamt it out of a handful of seeds, and filled the minds of its residents with her whispered tales.

Read at the level of allegory, Victory City is a buoyant celebration of the power of words — “Words are the only victors,” reads its last line — and the people who wield mastery over words. But the novel is also a cerebral interrogation into the meaning of history. How are we to sift truth from falsehood in the records of events left to us? Can history ever be a pristine archive of the past? Or is it a cacophony of voices competing to be heard above one another?

In one of the most affecting passages in the novel, as Pampa Kampana decides to give the people of Vijayanagara their origin story, she opts for the solution that makes the most intuitive sense to her: fiction. As Rushdie catches her in action, “She was making up their lives, their castes, their faiths, how many brothers and sisters they had, and what childhood games they had played, and sending the stories whispering through the streets into the ears that needed to hear them, writing the grand narrative of the city, creating its story now that she had created its life.”

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie | Photo Credit: Getty Images

What’s in a name?

In one fell swoop, Rushdie elevates the writer of fiction above the lame chronicler of the past, almost to a state of godlike eminence. At the same time, he also plants a seed of doubt in our minds. For, if history is the past garnished with the fanciful imaginings of strangers, travellers, and mercenaries, where does it leave us in the present, locked in battles of identity, caste, and religion? Are we shedding blood over differences that were never there or are the fabrication of twisted minds? Does it matter if Vijayanagara is bowdlerized to “Bisnaga” by the Portuguese horse-trader Domingo Nunes, one of Pampa Kampana’s several lovers? (In a typical Rushdie-style pun, Bisnaga seems to allude to a venomous snake, vish-naga, an appellation that comes to haunt the empire in the end.) And finally, the most Shakespearean question of all, what’s in a name?

Victory City
Salman Rushdie
Penguin Random House

The last one is summarily answered early on. Looking over their brand-new kingdom, Bukka Sangama, the crown prince of Vijayanagara, asks his brother Hukka, the king, “Those people down there, our new citizens — the men, I mean — do you think they are circumcised or not circumcised?” To which, Hukka says scornfully, “Do you want to go down there and ask them all to open their lungis, pull down their pyjamas, unwrap their sarongs?” A chastised Bukka replies, “The truth is, I don’t really care. It’s probably a mixture, and so what.” Sadly, as it turns out, his benign nonchalance is nowhere close to anticipating the havoc that these differences would wreak.

Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Victory City ends in a tremendous finale. Although the end is inevitably dark, the novel is a joy to read, carried from the start to finish by the wave of Rushdie’s infectious energy. What lingers in the reader’s mind is the sweet aftertaste of victory — of one of the finest writers of our times.

The writer is based in Delhi.

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