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3 February 2023

Victory City: Salman Rushdie’s story factory

Rushdie’s new novel, completed before his attack, is a fable that displays his overweening faith in narrative.

By David Sexton

Salman Rushdie was attacked and severely wounded just six months ago, on 12 August last year, in Chautauqua, New York. Although he lost sight in one eye and the use of a hand, he survived and we can only hope he will not be daunted as a writer and campaigner for freedom of speech. In the circumstances, the appearance of this latest addition to his great body of work deserves nothing but celebration and gratitude.

Victory City was completed before the attack, however, at a time when Rushdie believed that life was “very normal again”, as he told Stern magazine just a fortnight before the assault. Rushdie has long prided himself that his writing did not perceivably change following the fatwa issued against him on Valentine’s Day 1989. His 13th novel for adults, then, does not need special treatment but can be assessed in the context of his work as a whole.

Rushdie’s more recent novels have all had contemporary settings: the US in Quichotte (2019), New York City and Mumbai in The Golden House (2017). Victory City marks a return to India and the historical novel. It tells the true story, albeit in Rushdie’s fantastical way, of the imperial city of Vijayanagara (“city of victory”), which thrived in the 14th and 15th centuries in the southern state of Karnataka.

Vijayanagara was founded in 1336 to lead the Hindu states in the south in resistance to attacks from the Muslim sultanates of the north. Its empire flourished for nearly 230 years, through several changes of dynasty. At its height, this rich and beautiful city was rated second only to Beijing as the greatest in the world. Although it was established around a Hindu temple complex dedicated to Pampa (the goddess Parvati), all religions were tolerated. The arts thrived, including literature in several languages, some of which was composed by women, who were comparatively liberated in this society in some respects, although not others, since sati – where a widow burns herself alive alongside her late husband’s funeral pyre – was still in use on a large scale.

This golden age of Hindu power came to a sudden end, however. In 1565, at the Battle of Talikota, a vast Vijayanagaran army was unexpectedly defeated by an alliance of the Muslim Deccan Sultanates, with the ruler of the Vijayanagaran empire, Aliya Rama Raya, captured and beheaded on the field. Afterwards, the great city was systematically destroyed over a period of months, its inhabitants massacred; it became largely forgotten. The temple complex, now known as Hampi, is the only area that survives, and is a Unesco World Heritage site.

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The appeal and significance of this history to Salman Rushdie is evident, particularly with the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party in power in India. Vijayanagara has been emblematic to other writers, too. In his acknowledgements, Rushdie lists VS Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977). For both this book and its precursor, An Area of Darkness (1964), Naipaul visited the ruins of Vijayanagaraand drew pessimistic conclusions about India as a whole, speculating that the Hinduism it had proclaimed was already a dead end.

Victory City is by way of a retort to that. Rushdie gives this history the full magical realism treatment: things happen in threes, people fly and talk to the birds, the dialogue is stilted. It’s almost as though ChatGPT had been tasked to tackle the subject in Rushdie’s best style. Everything happens as in a fable, at middle distance, without question and without psychology.

The opening sentence is perfectly splashy: “On the last day of her life, when she was 247 years old, the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampara completed her immense narrative poem about Bisnaga [Vijayanagara] and buried it in a clay pot sealed with wax in the heart of the ruined Royal Enclosure, as a message to the future.” What we are reading, we soon learn, is this very epic, rediscovered after 450 years, translated and interpreted for us by a contemporary “spinner of yarns”. So we have legendary content in contemporary diction: the desired Rushdie mode.

Aged nine, Pampa witnesses her mother and all the women she knows commit sati, after a defeat in a local war, and she resolves never to follow the same course. At that very moment, the goddess she is named after enters her and prophesies that a great city will rise and that she will live as long it does, fighting “to make sure that no women are ever burned in this fashion, and that men start considering women in new ways”.

After spending nine years in a hermit’s cave, never speaking and being sexually abused, Pampa emerges, to instruct brothers Hukka and Bukka to sow some seeds. The city springs from them, fully grown, in a few hours, populated by people who don’t yet know who they are. Pampa fixes that too. “Her solution was fiction. She was making up their lives… sending the stories whispering through the streets into ears that needed to hear them, writing the grand narrative of the city, creating its story now that she had created its life.”

Pampa goes on to live through the entire history of the actual city, more or less. She marries its founding kings: first Hukka, then, after his death, Bukka. She takes as lovers the foreign visitors to the city who left such vivid accounts of its life, the Portuguese Domingos Paes and Fernão Nunes, their names jumbled here.

She spends many years in exile in a forest, before returning to the city, aged 86 but “still possessed of the youth, vigour, and appearance of a young woman of perhaps 25”, a comparative calculation made repeatedly through the book, as the decades go by and she stays yummy. She is the mother of the city, secretly influencing a series of golden ages. But nothing lasts. A deranged king becomes jealous of her and has her blinded. She retreats to a cell and continues to compose her epic poem for 40 years more, until the fall of the city.

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Pampa’s vision for her city is remarkably modern, feminist and generally admirable: new schools for girls, for example, and a movement that’s “no longer anti-art, against women, or hostile towards sexual diversity, but embracing poetry, liberty, women and joy”.

Behind all this, the main assertion is the familiar one from Rushdie: that words, stories and fictions are what matter most. We are told this in much the same basic terms, repeatedly. At the end of the book, Pampa proclaims the priority of authorship: “How are they remembered now, these kings, these queens?/They exist now only in words…/Words are the only victors.” The book announces, even more than it enacts, its message.

This has long been what Rushdie has to tell us. In a polemical address to an American humanist society in 2006, he insisted: “We all live in stories, so called grand narratives. Nation is a story. Family is a story. Religion is a story. Community is a story. We all live within and with these narratives.”

That we orientate ourselves with and within stories – and that these stories need to be constantly examined and questioned, as he argued, even within Islam – is undeniable. The claim that stories are what nation, family, religion and community absolutely and completely are, though, is patently not true, an assertion that’s both overweening and inadequate, an absurdity – even if it is what allows Rushdie to write in the distinctive way he does.

Victory City
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape, 352pp, £22

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[See also: Karl Ove Knausgaard on why the novel matters]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak