There is a slightly awkward moment towards the end of Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, the 15th in his long and successful career, when the ruler of the Indian kingdom of Bisnaga, literally “Victory City”, welcomes five sultans of the neighboring principalities to his palace and has “a number of unpleasant thoughts about followers of that religion which it is unnecessary to repeat here”.
At the time he wrote this, before the savage attack last August that left him blind in one eye and without the use of one hand, perhaps Rushdie thought it was now possible to joke about the fatwa that had been placed on his head by the Iranian government in 1989. After all, as long ago as 2007 he was quoted as saying, “It’s reached the point where it’s a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat,” and it had been many years since he was forced to spend his time being moved by armed bodyguards from one safe house to the next.
Even so, his choice of subject in this novel might raise a few quizzical eyebrows, because for a long time the usual story about Bisnaga was that it was a center of Hindu civilization that fell victim to Islamic aggression.
Most modern researchers now agree that by the time it fell in 1565, Bisnaga had developed into a multi-faith, multi-ethnic melting pot of cultures. According to the Delhi-based Scottish historian William Dalrymple, it was a place where “Hinduism and Islam creatively intermingled” or “chutnified” (“to use Salman Rushdie’s nice term”) in everything from the kingdom’s army to its architecture. This is the place that Victory City celebrates, one founded in the 14th century by two brothers, whose name means “the flowing together of two parts to make a new kind of whole”.
Legend Has It
Rushdie builds on these foundations in his usual exuberant style, mixing together history and fiction, the real and the fantastical, to create a world where “the miraculous and the everyday are two halves of a single whole”. In this version of the legend, elephants rub shoulders with pink monkeys, enchanted fish leap out of the river to be eaten, and a crack squad of female soldiers uses its bare hands to chop through trees “as if they were made of cotton”.
While some characters ponder serious philosophical questions, others “run up walls as if they were floors” and spin so fast they create little tornadoes around themselves. The same spirit of creative cross-pollination also animates Rushdie’s language, which switches happily back and forth between political allusions (one protester distributes blank sheets of paper, foreshadowing recent events in China) and pop culture, misty-eyed mysticism and references to “lonely hearts” and “sad sacks”. The result is a wonderfully entertaining literary hybrid, an intimate epic, a serious comedy of manners.
A spirit of creative cross-pollination animates Salman Rushdie’s language, which switches happily back and forth between political allusions and pop culture.
Central to this story is Pampa Kampana, a nine-year-old girl who has an encounter with a goddess and is granted magical powers. Later she sows a bag of seeds and watches as the walls of the city and its inhabitants rise overnight.
She is also blessed — or cursed — to live for more than 250 years, and therefore to bear witness to the city’s changing fortunes as the same mistakes are made by one generation of rulers after another, and the same questions that are asked at the start of the story continue to resonate without ever getting any firm answers: “So how are we supposed to live? What is a human life? What is a good life and what isn’t?”
A wonderfully entertaining literary hybrid, an intimate epic, a serious comedy of manners.
That we see everything through Pampa’s eyes should mean that Rushdie is offering a female perspective on history, but this isn’t something he pushes very far. (A lot more space is devoted to what the women of Bisnaga look like than what they do.)
Instead, his main focus remains what it has always been: the power of stories to create entire worlds out of words, and to blur the line between what is real and what is true. Pampa magically gives an inner life to the citizens she has created by making up stories for each of them, “sending the stories whispering through the streets into the ears that needed to hear them”. Yet what she is forced to discover is that stories always escape their creator and take on a life of their own.
Nobody knows this fact better than Rushdie, so the final line of Victory City, repeated and italicized for extra emphasis, is both poignant and triumphant: “Words are the only victors.” There are many readers round the world who will be relieved to discover that this is merely the conclusion to a giddily enjoyable novel. After all, if events had unfolded slightly differently a few months ago, it might easily have been Rushdie’s epitaph.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is a professor at Oxford and the author of several books, including Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist and The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland