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.
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.”
About the Author – Salman Rushdie is the author of fourteen previous novels, including Midnight’s Children (for which he won the Booker Prize and the Best of the Booker), The Satanic Verses, and Quichotte (which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize). A former president of PEN American Center, Rushdie was knighted in 2007 for services to literature and was made a Companion of Honour in the Queen’s last Birthday Honours list in 2022.
Reviewed by – SOMAK GHOSHAL (The Hindu)