The Miraculous Salman Rushdie
His enchanting new novel is a triumph.
Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Victory City, purports to be the summary of a long-lost, 24,000-verse epic poem from 14th-century India. The hero and author of the poem is Pampa Kampana, who as a girl becomes the conduit for a goddess, channeling her oracular pronouncements and wielding her magical powers. She later causes a city to rise overnight from enchanted seeds, presides as its queen, and lives to the age of 247. The city she founds becomes a utopia—a feminist one, I’m tempted to say, because in its heyday women are equal to men. But really, when women flourish, everyone flourishes: male and female, native and foreigner, Muslim and Buddhist and Jain, gay and straight and bisexual. This liberal Xanadu goes on to become a great kingdom and turns distinctly illiberal. Pampa is forced to flee and hide.
The novel is titled Victory City not so much because that’s the city’s name—though briefly called that (Vijayanagar), it was soon rechristened Bisnaga—or because Pampa emerges victorious. She does not. The title comes from the last passage of her poem, written at the end of her centuries-long life. Casting her mind back over the rise and fall of her empire, she asks how its kings and queens will be remembered. Only through words, she answers—her words:
While they lived, they were victors, or vanquished, or both.
Now they are neither.
Words are the only victors.
Just by dint of ending up in our hands, Victory City vindicates Pampa’s bittersweet faith in literature. In a sense, that’s true of everything Rushdie has published since 1989, when he went into hiding after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa, a religious ruling, in this case condemning Rushdie to death. His books could so easily not have been written. But Victory City is especially precious. For one thing, it comes out a mere six months after a self-avowed admirer of Khomeini finally got to Rushdie, assaulting him on a stage and stabbing him repeatedly in the neck and torso. Rushdie lost the use of an eye and a hand. He may have still been working on this novel; he may have finished it already. Readers will easily spot general parallels between our hero and her creator—both are prolific world-builders; both must elude political assassination—but a few of them seem to reproduce with eerie specificity the events of the summer. We don’t know whether he added those afterward or life imitated fiction, as it sometimes does. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that Victory City is a triumph—not because it exists, but because it is utterly enchanting. Words are the only victors.
If this somber backstory makes you think that the novel is a slog, I’ve misled you. Victory City is a cheerful little vessel, despite its ultimate destination. Its myths of origin are recounted with glee. The day Bisnaga is created, its newly minted inhabitants are found asleep in the street, or wandering like sleepwalkers, or rolling on the ground in a state of confusion, beshitting themselves. Pampa whispers words that reach their ears and fill their minds with fictional ancestors, made-up memories, and notions of how to behave. By the following day, the adults are acting like adults and the children are running around as children should. Out of chaos has come something very like a nation: “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.”
Rushdie plays adroitly with the metafictional and political implications of “real” people and a “real” polity being created out of imaginary backstories. (The image brings to mind a line from Benedict Anderson’s great treatise on nationalism, Imagined Communities : “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.”) But not to worry. These big ideas bob along on the novel’s buoyant tone. That is set by two former cowherds, Hukka and Bukka, who hail from a town named Gooty. Fresh from a stint of inept soldiering and inspired by word of Pampa’s great beauty, they show up at her door bearing a bag of seeds, among other gifts. She casts a spell on the seeds and sends the young men out to sow them. Stunned to see the city materialize, Hukka and Bukka decide that one of them should be its king and the other the king in waiting. That they’re the right men for the jobs is not immediately evident.
“We must become gods now,” Hukka says. “There, you see,” he says, pointing. “There is our father, the Moon.” Oh, cut it out, Bukka says. “We’ll never get away with that.” A little later, it’s Bukka’s turn to essay great thoughts. “What is a human being?” he ventures. Did we start out as seeds? Or vegetables? Or “cows who lost our udders and two of our legs”? Frankly, he says, “I’m finding the vegetable possibility the most upsetting. I don’t want to discover that my great-grandfather was a brinjal, or a pea.”
Soon enough, they’ve moved on to the topic of who will be king first.
“Well,” Bukka said, hopefully, “I’m the smartest.”
“That’s debatable,” Hukka said. “However, I’m the oldest.”
“And I’m the most likable.”
“Again, debatable. But I repeat: I’m the oldest.”
“Yes, you’re old. But I’m the most dynamic.”
“Dynamic isn’t the same thing as regal,” Hukka said. “And I’m still the oldest.”
If their shtick sounds familiar, that’s because Hukka and Bukka descend from a noble line of squabbling clowns. They’re the heirs of the Marx Brothers bumbling around Freedonia; Abbott and Costello debating who’s on first; The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa arguing over which bugs taste best. You can’t read this novel without having classic movies on the brain. Film references are everywhere. Hukka insults his and Bukka’s no-good, thieving brothers, Pukka, Chukka, and Dev, who have come to mooch off their siblings, in phrases that echo the curses a French soldier hurls at King Arthur and his knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Empty-headed animal-food trough water! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!”). The nefarious brothers are “dark princes, shadow lords, phantoms of the blood,” Hukka says while the trio stands in front of him and Bukka. “They are stale bread. They are rotting fruit. They are moons in eclipse.”
Hukka and Bukka’s buffoonery helps turn Victory City into one of the most charming of Rushdie’s wonder tales, his excursions into Arabian Nights–style fantasia, a category that includes such novels as Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and The Enchantress of Florence (2008). Victory City takes on the issues the novelist has addressed throughout his career: the truthfulness of fiction and the scourges of religious orthodoxy and sanctimony, as well as colonialism, capitalism, fanaticism, and all other isms that in Rushdie’s view are antithetical to the joyous multifariousness he treasures. To this rogues’ gallery, Victory City adds patriarchy—and handles it, too, with a light touch.
Rushdie’s comedies aren’t always this effervescent. Some of them—I count The Satanic Verses among them—have felt strained and overstuffed. They’re zany, which is not the same as funny. Clause is heaped upon clause in 10-car pileups of verbosity. The satire gets lost in the jumble. Victory City, however, sticks to the folk spirit of fairy tale. That is not to say the prose is simple. Rushdie’s narration is always polyphonic, but here the hubbub is muted. You have to listen for the shifts in register. The narrator seems to slip into different personas, each with its own vocabulary and speech patterns: a pontificating elder, say, followed by a sarcastic wit.
Rushdie’s protagonists also have a hard time staying in character. They try valiantly to stick to the orotund locution of myth and legend but keep lapsing into the vernacular, as if the heroic mode irritated their skin and had to be shrugged off. When Hukka proposes to Pampa, she replies, as though from on high, “There are things that must be done that are important for the general good … I will accept your hand to establish the bloodline of the empire.” Hukka, hurt, starts to berate her, and his face erupts in spots. She bursts out laughing: “Suppurating zits, good gracious.” It’s very prepubescent of me, but one of my favorite lines turns on nothing more than the incongruous use of bad language. A man pauses before an enchanted forest, afraid that its presiding goddess will kill him if he ventures in. Finally, he makes a decision: “Okay … Fuck it. I’ll stay.”
The playful language, though, doesn’t obscure the seriousness of the politics. This is a novel about backlash—the kind now cresting in America and abroad, and the kind found throughout history whenever despots feel threatened by the flowering of liberty. Here are some of the freedoms and pleasures opposed by the often cadaverous malefactors of the novel: worshipping the wrong god, women enjoying the same rights as men, sexual diversity, the mixing of faiths and cultures, dissent, poetry, art. “The thugs of the discarded power structure didn’t give up easily,” the narrator observes at one point.
Victory City begins with a damning picture of the life—and death—of women under the old power structure. Pampa’s mother drops her child’s hand to walk into a funeral pyre, joining a mass suicide of women, mostly wives whose husbands were recently slaughtered in a senseless battle. Pampa’s mother, widowed years earlier, falls prey to the collective frenzy of female self-immolation. The abandoned child swears she will “turn her face toward life” and carry on until she is “impossibly, defiantly old.” This is the moment when the thundering voice of the goddess issues from her mouth. “You will fight to make sure that no more women are ever burned in this fashion, and that men start considering women in new ways,” the goddess decrees. “And you will live just long enough to witness both your success and your failure.”
Pampa’s life is definitely long enough to see both the realization of her and the goddess’s ambitions and all that follows. When she whispered Bisnaga into being, she gave the women professional identities they couldn’t dream of having anywhere else, certainly in the 14th century. They are lawyers, police officers, scribes, dentists, and soldiers. They guard the palace wearing golden breastplates; when they play drums in the square, men dance to them. While egalitarianism reigns, the city thrives; its coffers are said to be overflowing.
If I were into numerology, I’d attribute significance to the fact that if you subtract Pampa’s life span (247 years) from the present year, 2023, you get 1776, which suggests another nation conceived in liberty. America’s lapses do seem to be on Rushdie’s mind. Much later, after Bisnaga has come under corrupt, theocratic rule, the narrator observes that its people have “little regard for yesterdays.” They live wholly in the present. “This made Bisnaga a dynamic place, capable of immense forward-looking energy, but also a place that suffered from the problem of all amnesiacs,” Rushdie writes, “which was that to turn away from history was to make possible a cyclical repetition of its crimes.” This could describe any number of evolving countries, of course, but echoes a familiar critique of the United States.
Pampa, meanwhile, is a woman of the future who does not forget the past. She is thrillingly brazen, not just by the standards of her day but also by ours. Her audacity amounts to an authorial nudge, bidding us to remember that we, too, can be prudish. Pampa agrees to marry Hukka only on the condition that she be allowed to keep her lover, a Portuguese horse trader whose eyes are “the green of the grass at dawn” and whose hair is “the red of the sun as it set.” Hukka agrees to this unconventional arrangement because her power and beauty drive him mad with lust: “You are so unbelievably dangerous,” he says feverishly. Pampa should have realized that this love language of Hukka’s was also a warning.
Salman Rushdie is often called a magical realist. I think a better term is fabulist, in the literal sense of the word. His novels are fables, stories featuring magical humans and other creatures who teach little, and big, lessons. There are two ways to write didactic fiction: with a straight face or playing it for laughs. Rushdie has always gone for the laughs, embellishing his morality plays with vaudevillian flourishes. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which he wrote for his son, the villains wear long black cloaks and carry hidden daggers. It’s a cloak-and-dagger joke, of course, but its adult audience may have read into it something else as well. Haroun came out in 1990, the year after the fatwa was issued. The black-robed Khomeini claimed that Rushdie’s brashly profane Satanic Verses was an insult to “the sacred beliefs of Muslims” (Rushdie’s theory is that the imam wanted to rally his followers after the ruinous Iran‑Iraq War). Screaming mobs had demanded that the book be banned. In Haroun, the bad guys have outlawed speech itself; the head bad guy is “the Arch-Enemy of all Stories,” “the Prince of Silence,” and “the Foe of Speech.”
One of the lesser vicissitudes of becoming world-famous as the object of an international murder plot rather than as a novelist is that your work will always be read as an allegory of your life. I don’t think I’m overindulging in this biographical fallacy, though, if I say that Rushdie’s frothy comedies are also very dark. Even the happy ending of a children’s book like Haroun feels Brechtian. Sudden rescues after an implausible series of events underscore the blunt truth that good isn’t guaranteed to triumph. On the contrary: The odds are usually against it.
Bisnaga founders because Pampa’s personal liberties engender a political crisis. Her marriage to Hukka is unhappy. Her daughters have reddish hair and green eyes, and Hukka grows sulky. In his gloom, he comes under the sway of a particularly unpleasant priest, Vidyasagar, the leader of a puritanical “New Religion,” who aims to correct what he considers Bisnaga’s moral laxity. Vidyasagar and Pampa have history, too: When she was a child, he took her in, only to sexually abuse her for years. Now Vidyasagar becomes Hukka’s chief adviser, but luckily, Hukka dies before the two of them can outlaw everything with life in it. Bukka ascends to the throne. He’s open-minded and jolly. Pampa’s horse-trader paramour has died, and she marries Bukka for love; he’s happy to let Pampa put up erotic friezes all over the city. Theirs is the first golden age of Bisnaga.
But golden ages don’t last, and as everyone knows, utopias and magic kingdoms rarely survive generational transitions of power. The dour ascetic gains an ever larger following. The queen refuses to compromise her principles. Pampa demands that her daughters, who have grown up to be gracious and wise, claim the right of succession to the throne, rather than the younger, brutish sons she had with Bukka. He complies and banishes them, reluctantly. Riots break out in the city, which is growing more intolerant. Pampa tries to whisper the people back to reason, but they’re less inclined to listen than they used to be. “It may just be,” Rushdie has Bukka observe, in a wink to the reader, “that your ideas are too progressive for the fourteenth century.” The gears of the city’s and Pampa’s downfall creak into motion.
Rushdie knows a lot—too much—about backlashes and their horrors. It would be easy to read the antics of his post-fatwa novels as pure defiance: If he stops playing the jester, the terrorists win. There’s some truth to that, and in the face of a deadly threat that curtailed his freedom of movement for more than three decades, his staunch drollery has been remarkable. But he was a clown from the beginning. His verbal excess, his vamping, his characters’ exaggerated traits—his general shenanigans—are parts of a whole, a commedia dell’arte performance drawing on his personal suffering, yes, but also on the great dramas of our time, in which he played a role only because he was forced to. Chief among these dramas, for Rushdie, are the struggle between authoritarianism and noisy, messy democracy, and the efforts of the humorless and hierarchical to quash irreverence and equality. No matter what else is happening, in the theater of this author’s mind, the masks go on and are taken off. He stands in the wings, ready with the next one. He mugs for the audience. Points are made, but lightly, lightly. When you think about it, Rushdie’s novels are a miracle. May the goddess grant him strength to write another one.
This article appears in the March 2023 print edition with the headline “The Miraculous Salman Rushdie.”
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