Just before Salman Rushdie’s “Victory City” hits the shelves :Reviews

Salman Rushdie’s latest book, Victory City, which will be published on February 7 as he recovers from an attack that occurred before a lecture last August, completely shuns modernity and idiom in favour of 14th-century India, where a young girl who has been possessed and given supernatural power by a god founds a city and guides it toward becoming an empire.

In Hindustan, after a brief battle between two kingdoms, the women of the defeated kingdom march into a pyre to join their husbands in death. Pampa Kampana, a nine-year-old girl who witnesses, “would carry the aroma of her mother’s burning flesh in her nostrils for the rest of her life.”

Into the void of Pampa’s grief steps the goddess Parvati, who, speaking through Pampa’s own mouth, tells her that “in this exact place a great city will rise, the wonder of the world, and its empire will last for more than two centuries. And you … will see it all and tell its story.” The goddess adds that in this new empire, women are no longer to be treated like chattel. As a king will tell her later, Pampa’s ideas are “a little ahead of your time.”

After nine years spent in a cave with a lecherous monk, Pampa instructs two passing shepherds to scatter some seeds at the site of her mother’s pyre. These seeds sprout into the palaces, temples, and hovels of a sprawling city that will be named Bisnaga; people emerge, “born full-grown from the brown earth, shaking the dirt off their garments, and thronging the streets in the evening breeze.” The shepherds, Hukka and Bukka, correctly reckon they will become the first kings of this new empire, and Hukka has the idea to tell the freshly sprouted citizens that he and his brother are gods, descended from their father, the moon. “No,” replies Bukka, “we’ll never get away with that.”

Pampa, who carries the curse of long life, living to about 250 years, is Bisnaga’s first and second queen, then twice exiled and returned. Palace intrigues roil as the borders of the empire expand and contract under subsequent monarchs: some conquerors, others managers, and some religious zealots. Royal succession is complicated by Pampa’s children. An underground resistance movement called the Remonstrance sows dissension. Through it all, Pampa, like Athena to Athens, makes her best attempts at divine intercession.

In his review in Time magazine Nicholas Mancusi, who is the author of the novel A Philosophy of Ruin,

“Rushdie’s relentless creative energy pairs well with his understanding of how history ‘works,’ and (excepting the occasional magic spell or gift of flight) this book can read almost more like a work of history than a fairy tale. So call it a feat of fidelity that later sections grow confusingly byzantine and the history lesson drags at points.

“What Rushdie re-creates convincingly is the way that the divine is a necessary component in the creation myths of great cities and societies. The urge to understand ourselves in sacred terms developed not from the invention of history, but alongside it. It’s as if Rushdie has dropped a molecule of divinity into a petri dish containing the other basic stuff of life, and watched a civilization cultivate”.

For Ella Feldman in the Smithsonian magazine, Victory City, which reads like an ancient epic, “sells itself as a testament to the power of storytelling, a power that Rushdie has in abundance—and one he’s been targeted for”.

Martin Chilton writing in The Independent, says that “to wholeheartedly enjoy Victory City, you will need to be a fan of tales involving magic realism, mythology and supernatural visions. 

“Rushdie’s imagination certainly seems pleasurably fired by returning to an Indian novel after a decade of Western-based novels, and although the fantasy of Victory City will not be to everyone’s taste (and there are flaws, including some pedestrian similes), it is a vibrant, sweeping tale with a valuable message: that stories outlast tyrants and words can be the true victory”.

For Cal Revely-Calder in The Telegraph, “There’s much to admire about Victory City: swift pace, unfussy structure, fluent and spirited prose. Rushdie hasn’t wavered in his devotion to fiction: if, in the old Didion line, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’, it’s not merely to pass the time, but to understand that ‘life’ entails pledging, and receiving, trust in other ways of viewing the world. Mutual respect grows rare in Bisnaga, as factions and sects appear – yet, having conjured an allegory fitting to present-day India, Rushdie demurs, keeping the novel’s philosophy vague and psychology paper-thin. (Only at one late moment does real life intervene. As a Hindu king receives five Muslim sultans, he forms ‘a number of unpleasant thoughts about followers of that religion which it is unnecessary to repeat here’.” 

Kirkus Reviews describes the book as “a grand entertainment, in a tale with many strands, by an ascended master of modern legends,” adding that “Rushdie reflects throughout on the nature of history and storytelling, with Pampa Kampana’s creations learning who they are only through the ‘imaginary narrative’ that is whispered to them as they sleep and with Vijayanagar’s rulers, along with their subjects, the victims of historical amnesia who ‘exist now only in words”.

“Rushdie has already proven himself one of his generation’s most adept literary stars, and his forthcoming epic fantasy novel promises to be one of the best releases of the year.” – The Week (one of the must-read books in early 2023)

Colum McCann, the Thomas Hunter Writer in Residence at Hunter College, New York, says that “Salman Rushdie has created a radiant myth about mythmaking. Victory City is a book that privileges the ethical imagination and the unmistakable permanence of storytelling. Within these pages, you will find global travellers, rapacious kings, cave dwellers, prophets of doom, and, at its fierce and eloquent heart, a storyteller who reminds us that death may take away a lot of things, but never the power of our words. Beyond war, beyond violence, even beyond life itself, the story, and the storyteller, last.” 

“It’s splendid that Salman Rushdie has a new novel out… . Better still, it’s a cracker. Purportedly a rediscovered ancient epic, it’s about the transformative power of human creativity, the enduring ability of art to shape the world.” – The Guardian (fiction to look out for in 2023)


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