Salman Rushdie triumphs with ‘Victory City’

The acclaimed author delivers an exuberant historical novel about the power of words, despite attempts to silence him.
Salman Rushdie is the author of "Victory City."
Salman Rushdie is the author of "Victory City." [ Rachel Eliza Griffiths ]
Published Feb. 1|Updated Feb. 1

“Victory City” indeed.

When he began writing his 13th novel, Salman Rushdie couldn’t have known it, but the book proves to be a vivid testament to the power of language against those who would suppress it — and to Rushdie’s own endurance.

He was all too familiar with suppression after his 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses,” resulted in a fatwa, or sentence of death, against him by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which led to Rushdie living in hiding for years.

In the meantime, he wrote novels, nonfiction and children’s books, spoke out against censorship and collected a roster of awards and honors (including being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II) that fills several pages.

Related: Read a review of Salman Rushdie's "Quichotte."

By last year, he had long since reentered public life. On Aug. 12, he had just taken the stage at a literary festival in Chautauqua, New York, when a man rushed the stage and stabbed him repeatedly. The attacker, who has been charged with second-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault, has not talked publicly about his motives but said in an interview he had “read like two pages” of “The Satanic Verses” and decided “I don’t like the person.”

Rushdie, 75, has been out of public view ever since, with only occasional reports that he’s recovering from the attack but lost one eye and the use of one hand. Publisher Random House announced he won’t be making appearances in support of “Victory City.”

But the novel speaks for itself. After setting his last three books in the United States, where he has lived since 2000 (becoming a citizen in 2016), Rushdie returns to his native India for this exuberant historical novel.

Spanning more than two centuries, “Victory City” is based on the historical Vijayanagar empire, which ruled southern India from the mid 14th century until it collapsed in 1646.

Many of the book’s characters and events are taken from history, like the two Sangama brothers, cowherds who became the first two kings of the empire.

But its main character is Rushdie’s extraordinary invention. In the ruins of a city destroyed more than four centuries ago, the novel’s narrator tells us, a manuscript was found, buried in a clay pot. It’s an “immense narrative poem” in Sanskrit called “Jayaparajaya,” or “Victory and Defeat.” He presents the novel as that story, “retold in plainer language by the present author, who is neither a scholar nor a poet but merely a spinner of yarns. ...”

The author of the poem, Pampa Kampana, named for a river that in turn is named for a Hindu goddess, is 9 years old when she watches her mother walk willingly into a funeral pyre after most of their village’s men die in battle.

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The traumatized child vows she will never “follow dead men into the underworld,” and in that moment she’s possessed by her namesake goddess, who grants her an array of powers, including extraordinary longevity without aging — she will live to be 247.

But she’s still an orphan child, and she takes shelter with a monk, who turns out to be a less than holy man. He does teach her the Hindu holy books, and she learns to read and write. For nine years, she grows into a beauty but never speaks.

Her voice returns with the arrival of the Sangama brothers, Hukka and Bukka, drawn by rumors of her beauty and bearing gifts. The goddess speaks to her again: The bag of seeds the brothers gave her is magical.

Hukka and Bukka become the astonished witnesses as Pampa sows the seeds and an entire city springs up overnight, houses and temples and palaces and a soaring wall to protect it all. Its population also appears, people of all ages, but they seem to wander in a fog.

Pampa begins to whisper in their ears, the narrator tells us. “Her solution was fiction. She was making up their lives. ... writing the grand narrative of the city, creating its story now that she had created its life.”

Her whispers work. “It was as if everyone had lived here for years,” Rushdie writes, and had “formed a long-established community, a city of love and death, tears and laughter, loyalty and betrayal, and everything else that human nature contains.”

The city will come to be called Bisnaga, the Victory City of the title. Hukka becomes its king and wants to make Pampa his queen. She won’t give up her true love, a red-haired, green-eyed Portuguese horse trader named Domingo Nunes, but she has plenty of ideas about what she might do with the power of the throne.

So she marries Hukka and bears him three daughters, whose red hair and green eyes are never mentioned in the court. The ambitious, free-spirited girls are the apples of their mother’s eye. Later, after the deaths of Hukka and Nunes, she marries Bukka, the next king, and bears him three sons, whose arrogant behavior so offends Pampa she exiles them.

In her time on the throne she makes of Bisnaga a kind of utopia where women are educated and liberated, where the arts are revered, and the city prospers.

But history tells us such utopias spark backlashes. Religious conflict rears its hideous head, flanked by misogyny and puritanism. At one point Pampa and her daughters flee to spend years in an enchanted forest ruled by the goddess Aranyani, where they can speak to the birds and beasts and where a war occurs between different-colored monkeys. (Watch out for the hairless pink ones.)

The cycles will continue as Pampa returns, marries yet another king, grapples again with power and its loss, culminating in a horrific punishment that does not stop her from completing her poem, the tale of her witness of more than two centuries of empire.

“Victory City” overflows with magical realism and myth, with court intrigue and epic battles, with sly satire and heartbreak. And all of it shows us, yet again, the power of writing despite those who would try to stop it. In the last lines of her poem, Pampa writes:

“I myself am nothing now. All that remains is this city of words.

“Words are the only victors.”

Oxford Exchange bookstore manager Laura Taylor, author Salman Rushdie and Times book editor Colette Bancroft wait backstage at Tampa Theatre in September 2019.
Oxford Exchange bookstore manager Laura Taylor, author Salman Rushdie and Times book editor Colette Bancroft wait backstage at Tampa Theatre in September 2019. [ Colette Bancroft ]

We don’t know whether Rushdie completed “Victory City” before he was attacked or was able to work on it afterward. But the resonance between its fictional story and his life is unmistakable.

The shock and savagery of that attack struck a chord worldwide. I felt a personal chill as well — only three years before, I had interviewed Rushdie on stage at Tampa Theatre.

The knife attack didn’t happen here, but are we sure it couldn’t? Florida is fast becoming a symbol of intolerance for ideas that disturb those in power. Books are in the direct line of fire of people who want to suppress those ideas.

Pinellas County’s school board has stripped Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from school libraries; teachers around the state have been told they could be charged with a felony for sharing with their students books that haven’t been vetted for material deemed unacceptable to the state.

Related: ‘The Bluest Eye’ is the latest victim of Florida’s thought police

Censoring a book is not the same thing as trying to kill its author. But both are fatal to freedom.

The cover of "Victory City" by Salman Rushdie.
The cover of "Victory City" by Salman Rushdie. [ Penguin Random House ]

Victory City

By Salman Rushdie

Random House, 352 pages, $30