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Victory City by Salman Rushdie

I confess that I have a shelf full of books by Salman Rushdie. Some I bought new in the 1990s. Most I love, some didn’t really work for me, and there are a couple that I have yet to read. The books that work the best are, like this one, are when Rushdie is in the realms of magical realism. The master that brought us The Enchantress of Florence, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and most recently Quichotte has done it again. There is little doubt that he is a master storyteller; the flow of prose is effortless, the breadth of imagination boundless. A wonderful flight of imagination.

In his first interview since the horrific attack on the author in August last year, Salman Rushdie humorously observed “I have always thought that my books are more interesting than my life. Unfortunately, the world appears to disagree.” This is his fifteenth novel, which was thankfully completed before the attack. Just as well, because he claims that everything he has tried to write since has ended up in the bin.

Victory City is a wide ranging historical romp set in India’s Middle Ages. Some of the characters and locations are real, some are not. But none of that is important. It is possible to read modern interpretations into the narrative; for example Rushdie has been critical of the Modi government. The theme of popularity allowing you to get away with anything is a frequent motif, and echoes events around the globe in recent years.

This is dense book, not so much due to the number of pages but to the volume of information, twists in the narrative and a voluminous cast of characters. Add to that our central character, Pampa Kampana, who lives to the age of two hundred and forty-seven, and the density is explained. We have an array of husbands, rulers, daughters and lovers, all of whom have to die before she does. As with many Rushdie novels we have many levels on which to enjoy the narrative; historical fiction, current affairs commentary or just a ways to have fun at the readers’ expense. Look carefully and you will find references to the ‘once and future queen’ and the ‘witch behind a wardrobe’.

Having been given the gift of long life by the goddess Parvati, Pampa Kampana becomes the founder of the city of Bisnaga, which she does from a basket of seeds, first growing the city itself and then whispering in the ears of its new inhabitants to create every backstory and disguise the recent creation. It is here that Rushdie is at his descriptive best: “In those first moments the city was not yet full alive. Spreading out from the shadow of the barren bouldered hills, it looked like a shining cosmopolis whose inhabitants had abandoned it. The villas of the rich stood unoccupied, villas with stone foundations upon which stood graceful, pillared structures of brick and wood; the canopied market stalls were empty, awaiting the arrival of florists, butchers, tailors, wine merchants, and dentists; in the red-light district there were brothels, but as yet, no whores. The river rushed along and the banks where washerwomen and washermen would do their work seemed to wait expectantly for some action, some movement that would give meaning to the place...Then life began, and hundreds – no thousands – of men and women were born full-grown from the brown earth, shaking the earth off their garments, and thronging the streets in the evening breeze. Stray dogs and bony cows walked into the streets, trees burst into blossom and leaf, and the sky swarmed with parrots, yes, and crows. There was laundry upon the riverbank…”

The words of Pampa Kampana are always the most powerful and she constantly has to face up to the horror of her own situation. “Her lovers would die, her children (who already looked more like her sisters than her offspring) would look older that their mother and fade away, the generations would flow past her, but her beauty would not fade. This knowledge brought her very little pleasure.” Ultimately it is her words which are the core of the message that the novel delivers. This is all about the power of words, since all that remains of the once great city of Bisnaga are Pampa’s buried words and stories.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Jonathan Cape


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