In a review of Salman Rushdie’s 2019 novel Quichotte, the critic Parul Sehgal cracked what has alas become his formula for fiction: “Classic Novel or Myth used as Scaffolding, Femme Fatale, Story within the Story (recounted by a Garrulous Narrator), Topical Concerns, Defence of Hybridity.”
Victory City, Rushdie’s 15th novel, I’m sorry to report, does not deviate. Scaffolded on a mythologised lost empire, framed as a translation of an epic poem, Victory City is about an eternally youthful femme fatale fighting religious fundamentalism.
Bingo card aside, the topic of sectarianism is chilling in light of the August stabbing of Rushdie at a lecture in New York State, which left him blind in one eye and without the use of one of his hands. There has been a bounty on Rushdie since the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for perceived blasphemy in The Satanic Verses. The edict sent Rushdie into hiding for nearly a decade and led to the death of his Japanese translator, 37 deaths in a hotel fire intended for his Turkish translator, and attempts on the lives of his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher.
After a trio of overwrought novels satirising the United States, where Rushdie has lived since 2000, Victory City returns to his native India. The titular city is Bisnaga, a version of Vijayanagar (Sanskrit for Victory City), the capital of an empire in southern India founded in the 14th century. In Rushdie’s spin, a woman named Pampa Kampana observes the rise and fall of the empire in the course of her 247-year life, which she captures in an epic poem and buries for future generations to find.
Pampa is orphaned at nine when her mother walks into a bonfire in a mass suicide of women after their city is vanquished. Stunned by her mother’s self-immolation, she is visited by the goddess Parvati, who endows her with magical gifts and prophesies that she will live to tell the story of the great city and “fight to make sure … that men start considering women in new ways”.
It will take some time for men to get on board: Pampa spends the rest of her childhood in the care of an abusive (supposedly celibate) monk. At 18, in fulfilment of the prophesy, Pampa instructs two visiting cowherds to scatter seeds at the site of her mother’s death. A metropolis and its inhabitants sprout fully formed, and – as a novelist animates characters – Pampa whispers each individual’s history to them, “fiction” including their castes and faiths. The cowherds become successive kings with Pampa as queen, but what starts with an era of peace and tolerance devolves into family factions and religious wars, with Pampa exiled before a return to the kingdom.
Billed as a feminist novel, Pampa freely expresses sexual desire and challenges patriarchal rule. The king tells her, in the 14th century, that she may be “just a little ahead of [her] time”. There is a caveat, however: in Rushdie’s world, women must be young and beautiful. Pampa and her daughter both fawn, at length, over older men. While perhaps a boon for her partners, Pampa’s eternal youth becomes a curse as she outlives all her loved ones.
One of the threads of Victory City is the function of storytelling, a recurring theme in Rushdie’s fiction and his most recent non-fiction collection, Languages of Truth (2021). The novel’s meta-narration recalls One Thousand and One Nights. The unnamed narrator, who translates Pampa’s epic into “plainer” prose 450 years later, is “neither a scholar nor a poet but merely a spinner of yarns”.
The story, sadly, is a bit knit-by-number and the pace lags in the middle. (Our garrulous narrator lacks Scheherazade’s yarn-spinning skills.) The sentences in Victory City are simple by Rushdie’s standards, fairytale-style peppered with one-liners. Strip away the exuberant vitality of the prose that so enchanted readers of Midnight’s Children (1981) and his shortcomings as a novelist, such as thin characterisation, come to the fore.
Just as Pampa supplies Bisnaga’s citizens’ personal pasts, she creates “the grand narrative of the city, creating its story now that she had created its life”. In Midnight’s Children, which tracked the transition to independence and partition, Rushdie called India “the new myth – a collective fiction in which anything was possible (a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God)”. In 2020, he wrote of his increasing despair about the country, including a rise in violence against women, authoritarianism and religious fanaticism: “Right now, in India, it’s midnight again.” The national allegory in Victory City, however, does not go much deeper than its conceit.
Written before the August attack, there is undue pressure on the critical reception of Victory City. During his recovery, Rushdie has been eagerly anticipating the responses to the novel, Colum McCann, a friend of Rushdie’s who blurbed the book, told the New York Times. But since the fatwa upended his life, Rushdie has admirably fought for normalcy. As the Booker Prize’s most decorated author, with the Booker of Bookers, Best of the Booker and six other shortlistings under his belt, I should think he would prefer his book to be judged solely on its literary merit.
Fielding the Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair, when asked where he would like to live, Rushdie replied “on bookshelves – forever”. Victory City won’t join other works from his oeuvre on the forever bookshelf. But the attack on Rushdie underscores its message. “Words are the only victors” closes the epic poem and the book. Rushdie has campaigned tirelessly, against a turning tide, for free speech; his thwarted lecture was on the subject of how to support political writers. As Pampa Kampana warns, “history is the consequence not only of people’s actions, but also of their forgetfulness”.