In 2017, I interviewed Salman Rushdie by phone for this paper. It was a fine September day in New York, the superstar author told me, and he was excited to be on promotional duties for his Trump-bashing romp, The Golden House. He was generous of spirit, reflecting on everything from the previous night’s season finale of Game of Thrones, to how The Satanic Verses was finally being spoken about for what it was — a book — rather than “the stuff that engulfed it”.
e was of course referring to the bounty put on the Booker-winner’s head in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini over perceived insults to the Prophet Mohammed contained in that novel. After years in hiding, living under constant protection, Rushdie sounded free and easy that day, someone able to look back at it all from the vantage of a safe new home in a new country. The irony of a different kind of cancel culture now existing in the world was not lost on him.
And today, four years later, it is harrowing to think that the agents of Islamofascist violence were able to get to him as he prepared to give a speech in New York last August (ironically, on the theme of the US as a haven for threatened writers). The assailant, not yet born when the novel was released and unlikely (as many of its most seething critics surely are) to have actually read the thing, was unsuccessful. All the same, Rushdie today remains in recovery with permanent injuries to one eye, his liver and his arm.
It is hard to separate Victory City from Rushdie’s day-to-day reality right now. Submitted to publishers long before the attack, his 15th novel nonetheless bottles some of the sentiment that supporters of the author have felt since he became a target. This is a novel unencumbered by restriction, boundary or limitation, where the enduring magic of one person’s words are defiant against the forces of tyranny.
That person is Pampa Kampana, whose account of her two-and-a-half-century lifetime we are reading a translation of. Commencing in 14th-century Hindustan, we are introduced to Pampa as an orphaned nine-year-old girl. She is possessed by a goddess who tells her that her destiny will be to use her new powers to give birth to a great city, one with progressive values and enlightened attitudes.
She comes of age after several years dwelling with an abusive monk, before meeting shepherd brothers Hukka and Bukka. She gives them seeds along with instructions to scatter them on the ground. From these sprouts the huge, fully-formed city of Bisnaga, complete with palaces, temples of worship, defensive walls and a bustling citizenry. Pampa whispers into the ears of these people their personal histories, fears and dreams, “writing the grand narrative of the city, creating its story now that she had created its life”. The shepherd siblings become the roots of a royal dynasty that will preside over Bisnaga, with Pampa taking on the role of not only its queen, but of a prophetess and miracle worker who walks among them. But for all her powers and social ideals, even she cannot stem the worst tendencies of human nature. As the generations pass, zeal, dissent, hubris and greed inevitably emerge amongst Pampa’s hand-sown society. Between the various exiles, treacheries, marriage alliances, muddied lineages and wars during the course of the epic, you’ll wonder are you reading an Asian Game of Thrones set in the Middle Ages, only more satirical and fabulously coloured.
The translation we read is of an ancient Sanskrit manuscript supposedly interred by Pampa in an earthenware pot before she died. The translator, “who is neither a scholar nor a poet but merely a spinner of yarns”, gets in on the act, occasionally breaking to puzzle over a thinness of details, make editorial remarks, or encourage the reader to take a leap of faith where a minor plot hole might emerge.
This extra framing device is lightly worn, and yet it adds to that vague tone of mischief Rushdie is always able to channel into his bright, fluid storytelling. Amid all the courtly intrigue and fantastic realism woven through the extensive cast of characters, fleeting dashes of wicked humour sit up and pierce the tale delectably. Rushdie’s sharp, camouflaged satire speaks to everything, from religious extremism to greed to patriarchal misogyny. It all just seems to unspool from him without effort.
No one can yet say when Rushdie will re-join public life and once again promote his new titles with the same breezy humour and generosity of spirit I encountered that day. What is significant right now is that Victory City is the perfect totem through which to consider him — a marvel of a book by a writer whose prodigious skill, consistency and wit we nearly lost. As Pampa puts it in her tale’s final lines, “words are the only victors”.
Fiction: Victory City by Salman Rushdie
Vintage, 352 pages, hardcover €17.99; e-book £17.99
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