Salman Rushdie, Victory City: A Novel, New York: Random House, 2023, 352 pp., ISBN 978-0593243398


Victory City, Salman Rushdie’s fifteenth novel, is a challenging book to review. Its title might suggest triumph to the uninitiated, but is actually a translation of Vijayanagar, the historic South Indian city and empire which flourished from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries of the common era and constitutes the inspiration for Rushdie’s novel. The book has been generally well received, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate it (even should it not be explicitly mentioned) from the appalling circumstance of the attack on the author’s life in New York state on 12 August 2022, which left Rushdie with life-changing injuries including the loss of an eye, a kidney and the use of a hand, and made Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa a near-reality thirty-three years on. The novel was finished and with the publishers well before the attack (it was published in February 2023), but the fact that it happened will inevitably colour reviewers’ and readers’ interpretations. The present review will not attempt to establish how far the fictional events of the novel (in which cruelty is not lacking) might anticipate what happened to its author. Instead, it will concentrate on two significant dimensions of Rushdie’s narration, namely genre and gender.  

Generically, Rushdie is famed as a key exponent of magic realism in its Indian manifestation, with Midnight’s Children viewed as the canonic example. Magic realist elements are present in most of his other novels, though some use it more sparingly than others (there is little in Shalimar the Clown and none at all in The Golden House). In some cases we find a fusion of magic realism with other genres – science fiction in Quichotte or The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and, notably, historical fiction in The Enchantress of Florence, a work rather more superficial than the new novel but nonetheless its forbear (both include scholarly bibliographies, in apparent vindication of their historicity).

In Victory City, Rushdie takes the basic historical fact of Vijayanagar (which he renames as Bisnaga on a cue from Portuguese), and traces city and empire’s rise and fall with a major infusion of magic realism. At the same time he employs the conventions of the historical novel, as established some two centuries ago by Walter Scott, mingling real and imaginary characters and events. We may note that if Scott’s more successful historical novels tend to be those set in his native Scotland, Victory City is one of the most India-centred of Rushdie’s fictions: after a detour in the US with his two previous novels, Rushdie now returns with a vengeance to Indian themes, more intensively, it might be said, than in any novel since Midnight’s Children. Unity of place is largely observed as the narration scarcely ventures outside South India: there are Chinese and Italian characters and a succession of Portuguese travellers loosely based on real traders, but the main characters are Indian through and through.

Regarding characters, a figure such as the empire’s longest-serving monarch, the unpleasant but powerful Krishnadevaraya, is based on a real historical personage, and historians of South India will no doubt have their word to say about where Rushdie follows the history and where, conversely, he invents. However, the book’s undoubted protagonist, the several times queen Pampa Kampana, is entirely invented. Pampa Kampana is at the heart of the book’s magical elements: she is granted special powers by the goddess Parvati, and thus lives for 247 years, can transform into a bird, and creates the city ex nihilo from magic seeds. The book’s magic realism is thus of a strong sort, inducting the reader ‘into the very heart of the fabulous’ (180). Rushdie also makes Pampa Kampana the ultimate author of the text, forefronting her imaginary epic the Jayaparajaya (or Victory and Defeat), presented as ‘her book, the book of which this book is but a pale shadow’ (250), a worthy companion to the Ramayana and Mahabharata,and offering his text as either a summary of her narration or as verbatim ‘quotation’ (in both cases of course ‘translated’ into English). Rushdie thus uses the strategy of an imagined authoritative text and its translation to endow his work with literary credibility, incidentally inviting comparison with Cervantes’ similar sleight-of-hand in the Quijote. Generically then, this is a complex text that fuses two very different genres while also affirming its own textuality.

If we move from genre to gender, we find Rushdie, not for the first time, bringing to the fore the situation of women, in this case in India. Bisnaga is imagined as an urban community where women’s participation in society goes well beyond their conventional roles. Pampa Kampana, forced to watch her mother burn as a sati, vows that women will never be so oppressed again, pledging to ensure that ‘no more women ever have to walk into halls of flame, and that all women are treated better than orphans at men’s mercy in the dark’ (32) – that ‘there will be no more burning of living women on dead men’s pyres in Bisnaga’ (174). Under her suzerainty women in Bisnaga fill a multiplicity of positions, becoming poets, potters, traders, and more; the palace guard too is all-female. Pampa Kampana declares with pride: ‘We have women medicos, women accountants, women judges, and women bailiffs too’ (94), and a new equalitarian regime takes hold: ‘All over the city women were doing what, elsewhere in the country, was thought of as work unsuitable for them … There were women policing the streets, and working as scribes, and pulling teeth, and beating mridangam drums while men danced to the rhythm’ (36). Equally, a generalised more liberal sexual and behavioural regime takes hold, with Khajuraho-like statues being displayed in public – though it does not last and is followed by a backlash. Pampa Kampana herself eventually falls victim to cruel and mutilating institutional violence, but her authorial role continues to the end and her epic is preserved, to be rediscovered long after.

A historical novel will inevitably tempt readers to find analogies with the present. Here for Victory City, rather than seek parallels with contemporary figures or events, I would suggest that Rushdie, in line with the notion that Vijayanagar/Bisnaga passed through a number of ‘golden ages’, is implying a certain model of history, namely one of alternating libertarian and authoritarian currents. The first prevails for a while, then the other, then with luck a lesser version of the first: ‘the truth about these so-called golden ages is that they never last very long’ (174).. The most libertarian epoch was the first under Pampa Kampana’s aegis; once gone, it was never recovered in full, though other, briefer more liberal regimes did recur, up to the city’s final destruction. In the end history becomes a ‘brief illusion of happy victories set in a long continuum of bitter, disillusioning defeats’ (138). Such a model may not be without its relevance for our times.

Rushdie ends his novel with its protagonist’s decease while her epic poem survives, and with her last words as relayed by the narrator: ‘Words are the only victors’ (330). Here as the reader finishes the book the fate of its author inevitably looms into view, with the creative power of the word affirmed in all its redemptive force as a healing balm, for the book’s characters, its author, its readers, and ultimately for all who care to heed its call.


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