Salman Rushdie’s ‘Victory City’ Is a Victory of the Imagination

Salman Rushdie’s Victory City is the story of the stretched-and-compressed, forwards-and-back, enchanted-and-accursed Vijayanagara Empire, from its foundation circa 1335 to its ruin circa 1565. Created by the poet and prophet Pampa Kampana from magic seeds and whispers, Victory City, or Bisnaga, is also a city within a city. Its history, written by Pampa, is recovered and narrated by an unnamed translator who tells us how inadequate is his ‘poor translation’ compared to Pampa’s medieval Sanskrit epic: ‘I cannot come close to her poetic genius…’ Parts of Pampa’s epic are veils of fiction, easy to pierce, says the translator. What she wanted was for future readers ‘to rip it to shreds, which would mean that she wished to give the impression of modesty while secretly wanting the credit she pretended to be giving to another.’ The alert reader may get the feeling that the narrator protests too much, that the true epic here is the translation by the self-same self-disparaging writer, whose victory is the victory of words and stories, an immortal word-city that remains long after empires have returned to dust. The telling of history itself is examined and urgent questions are raised. How much of our history is believable? How much of our memory is false? How much of historical truth is invented? How much of the invention is true? Finally, it asks a question of our own contemporary history: does make-believe create its own truth? 

Salman Rushdie
Victory City
Penguin Random House (February 2023)

For an answer, the reader may turn to the end of the book, to the acknowledgement pages, which are also a bibliography. It is bracing to note how much historical, cultural and social scholarship was required to create a work of fiction that seems to have been plucked from gossamer threads of air. I was struck by the citation for V.S Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization. Naipaul’s work of non-fiction makes the story of the Vijayanagara Empire one of conquest, plunder, and little else; a wound on the Indian psyche that will never heal. Comparisons are odious, but also instructive. When viewed beside Victory City, Naipaul’s study seems to be a limited, and limiting, way of viewing history. To fashion history into a form that folds the past into the present and the future, is to elevate history into something greater than itself, into myth and prophecy. And how playful is Salman Rushdie’s rendering. To take one example, Robert Sewell’s A Forgotten Empire is among the citations in the acknowledgements. Sewell’s translations of Domingo Paes and Fernao Nuniz enter the novel in the form of two Portuguese adventurers, Domingo Nunes and Fernao Paes, who become Pampa’s lovers.

As is often the case with a Salman Rushdie novel, Victory City‘s subject is everything. It is a word that occurs sometimes in italics, stressing that the book encompasses, among other things, love, war, religious fundamentalism, religious freedom, bigotry, poetry, God, the proper deportment of concubines and queens, the language spoken by beasts and birds, a spiritual history of South India, a political history of medieval India, a fable about power and greed and the impermanence of all things, and ideas that appear radical even five hundred years after their setting, for example, the notion that women are not only equal to but greater than men. 

Pampa Kampana, and her translator, believe the ocean of stories is the history of the world, and that Pampa’s epic holds lessons for the future. At these moments, the narrator steps away from his humble guise and adopts the royal ‘we’ to impart a credo. ‘Or was this poetry, a fable like so many others? We must reply, either it’s all true, or none of it is, and we prefer to believe in the truth of the well-told tale.’ Well, what about poetry? It’s not an accident that poetry, and mentions of poetry, appear so frequently in this novel. If fiction is a history of human achievement and ideas, poetry is a history of human emotion. And so, in a book about everything, there are asides addressed specifically to poets: ‘You know what they say about poets. They are in mourning from the day they are born, and they all die of sadness, because nobody can ever love them enough to satisfy them.’ 

What makes magical realism realistic is the presence of rules. The world of Victory City is governed by its own set of unbreakable rules. Even Pampa is bound by them, in the magical city she has created by whispering to its future citizens their dreams and backstories. These whispers bring about their own revelatory lessons, chief among them the idea that the miraculous and the everyday ‘are two halves of a single whole, and that we ourselves are the gods we seek to worship, and capable of great deeds.’ We are gods primarily because we are the creators of the story ocean, or katha-sagara, which is closely connected to the knowledge ocean, or vidya-sagara.

(A note: as a South Indian I’d like to point out how rarely, if ever, one comes across the language, culture and mythology of South India transformed into epic contemporary fiction. Kannada and Telugu words are heard. The Deccan and parts adjacent are foregrounded. Nuggets of information and scholarship accrue. For instance, the Portuguese origins of the Alphonso mango, the word Eradu, translated, wickedly, as Number Two, the presence of the rivers Krishna, Sarayu, Tungabhadra and Pampa, as well as very many items of trivia and grandeur from the ancient literatures of the south.)

In some ways, Salman Rushdie is more than a novelist. He is the representative writer of our age, whose life carries so much fraught symbolism that he could very easily stand in for some of the larger-than-life characters that people his fiction. At this point in his career, after more than twenty books of fiction and non-fiction, it is exceedingly clear what the writing represents – the imagination, with all its freedoms and perils, the sacred grove for which this writer has staked his liberty and his life. Victory City is exactly that, a victory of the imagination. One of its achievements is to balance a wealth of scholarship against creative play, ras lila, the dance of love. In the dance, Rushdie is having fun, a distinct and infectious condition. Yet, in the unfolding, the writer stays within the purview of his exceptional fiction, which is to provide instruction and delight, even within the span of a single sentence.

All around this book is the aura of prophecy, looking forward by looking back, and it is most disturbingly present in the passages that describe the fictional author’s blinding (written before the brutal assassination attempt that left the actual author blind in one eye). ‘In the beginning there was only pain, the kind of pain that made death feel desirable, a blessed relief.’ Then comes the adjustment to a new life. ‘There was nothing to be done about the blindness but now it was more than just darkness, it was filled with people, their faces, their hopes, their fears, their lives.’ The most moving and uncanny passage occurs as Pampa begins to write through her blindness: ‘She began to feel her selfhood returning as she wrote. She wrote slowly, much more slowly than in the past, but the writing was neat and clear.’

In fiction, Bisnaga is comparable only to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo; and the only way to end a story as vast as this is with a great conflagration. In its ruin, the city’s enduring meaning is revealed. Though the book ends with the fall of the city, its message is the opposite of oblivion. As Bisnaga is reduced to rubble, blood and ash, as the blind poet records her last sentence, we understand that Victory City is a city built on words, by words. It moves us into imagining new ways to live.

This article was first published on The Wire.

Jeet Thayil is a poet and novelist.