- Title: Victory City
- Author: Salman Rushdie
- Genre: Fiction
- Publisher: Random House
- Pages: 352
Very early on in Victory City – Salman Rushdie’s grand and conflicted new novel – the fathers of a fledgling city take a look at their infant creation and find that the human beings who populate it seem to be having a real hard go of things:
“There was a good deal of shouting, and of crying, and some of the people were rolling on the ground and kicking their legs in the air, punching the air as if to say, where am I, let me out of here. … In fact they seemed incapable of expressing what they truly wanted, food, or shelter, or someone to explain the world to them and make them feel safe in it, someone whose soft words could grant them the happy illusion of understanding what they could not understand.”
Victory City is many things – an Indian historical epic, a centuries-long fable, a meditation on the self-ruinous nature of power – but perhaps more than anything else, it is a story about the immortality of stories, the way a tale told will always outlive a sword swung.
Salman Rushdie still feels gratitude after stabbing left him blind in his right eye and struggling to write
The novel opens in 14th-century southern India and runs almost the entire 247-year span of its central character’s life. Pampa Kampana, named after and soon possessed by the goddess Pampa, is only a child when, after a bloody battle in which her people are overrun, she watches her mother step willingly into a burning pyre, part of a collective suicide. Abused by a scholar who takes her in, she soon becomes something of a prophet, granting two men who enter her orbit a bag of seeds and knowledge that they can plant a new city and its inhabitants, no different than crops.
From this encounter is born the town and then empire of Bisnaga. For the duration of the novel, the life and death of both woman and empire are recounted by a narrator who, centuries later, finds Kampana’s epic poem detailing all these events. It’s a premise that sounds more convoluted than it is – Victory City begins at the beginning and ends at the end of a life, even if that life is overrun with magic.
It takes a while for the story to dig its claws in, and there’s a stylistic cost to Rushdie’s very fable-heavy approach. A little too often, the narrator slips into jarringly ornate modes of speaking, the kind of thing that hearkens to Richard Francis Burton’s translation of Arabian Nights. It’s not exactly off-base for this kind of storytelling, and Rushdie often undermines it to great comedic effect.
But it’s also a bit daunting to pick up a 327-page book in which the narrator describes themselves in the first passage as “neither a scholar nor a poet but merely a spinner of yarns, and who offers this version for the simple entertainment and possible edification of today’s readers, the old and the young, the educated and the not so educated, those in search of wisdom and those amused by folly, northerners and southerners, followers of different gods and of no gods, the broad-minded and the narrow-minded, men and women and members of the genders beyond and in between, scions of the nobility and rank commoners, good people and rogues, charlatans and foreigners, humble sages, and egotistical fools.”
I mean, if that’s the windup, imagine the swing.
But then the story gets going. Rushdie bets on the addictive power that comes with leading a reader through centuries in the life of a place and a person, and the bet pays off. A few chapters into Victory City and it becomes difficult not to fall into the world being very deliberately, if at times meanderingly, built – the battles both individual and communal, the scheming, the intrigue. Politics and metaphor aside, it’s a hell of a yarn.
At his best, Rushdie composes with a scalpel – every observation at once transgressive and authoritative, a necessary opening up of things. And in those moments where it doesn’t feel caught in the middle of warring authorial intents, Victory City has about it that feel of an incision.
It’s not so much the impact of the scenes themselves, though there are some particularly visceral descriptions of human suffering here, but rather the way Rushdie manages to say something profound about the constructive power of storytelling without upending or undermining the story he’s supposed to be telling. The narrative itself is structured as a translation of an ancient epic poem, replete with asides and additions from the translator. It’s a structure made for this kind of insight into the nature of stories and what they can do.
Where the novel slips into a more grinding gear is during those sections where it feels like all the things the author is trying to do – and can do, at times, very well – are crowding one another out. There is a very well-written historical epic here; there’s also a sweeping mythology; there’s also plenty of wit and the occasional winking nod to some topics, including Islam, that will undoubtedly be overanalyzed to hell and back. But sometimes there’s not enough room for all of these things to live together peaceably, and the result feels a little too much like a compromise.
It’s not the biggest offence, and to allow such an amalgam of a text to unfold, a lot can be forgiven. The worst of it is when the reader can’t help but feel that the clouding language of myth and legend has been strategically employed to thin out what might have otherwise been a more direct or piercing investigation, an emotional or psychological element that got smoothed out a bit too much by Rushdie’s more magical impulses.
It is tempting, in light of all he has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of intolerant despots and wholly ignorant fanatics, to declare Victory City a masterpiece. In keeping with the notion of human affairs as a grand duel of narratives, such a conclusion would be a decisive, comforting one. But the novel isn’t a masterpiece. It is, at times, a very good book, brimming with real history and whole cloth invention, a marriage with which Rushdie has plenty of previous experience. And once it gets going, it’s deeply immersive, a world of its own.
But It’s also a conflicted piece of writing, too often a victim of the warring demands of wit, world-building grandeur and narrative pacing. More so, the aftertaste of Victory City is of a desperate plea for shared humanity, especially in our darkest times. As the story’s narrator puts it, “that in the end the salvation of human beings came from other human beings and not from things, no matter how large and imposing – and even magical – those things might be.”