Salman Rushdie’s new magic novel ‘Victory City’ contains ‘wisdom of a lifetime’
The story of Pampa Kampana, poet, prophet and mother of the Bisnaga Empire, begins with fire.
Salman Rushdie’s protagonist in his new novel ‘Victory City’ – a fictionalized account of the fallen Indian empire of Vijayanagar – lives to be 247 and buries 24,000 of his verses on the city’s history, works that will be discovered centuries later. But when the story begins, it’s a 9-year-old girl watching her mother and all the women she knows die by self-immolation as soldiers destroy their town. Alone, she becomes the receptacle of a local goddess, who gives her divine powers and long life.
Years later, two boys, Hakka and Bukka (the real founders and first kings of Vijayanagar), seek wisdom from a monk who took in the grieving young Pampa Kampana. She asks them to sow the seeds they brought as a gift, which she imbues with the power to sprout a progressive and harmonious city with religious and sexual freedom, where the arts can flourish and women are safe. .
And so Rushdie mixes history and myth, writing the long life of a fictional woman who attempts to exert influence over the capital city of Vijayanagar as queen and eventual exile. Although in Rushdie’s book the setting is renamed Bisnaga due to a character’s speech impediment, it follows the trajectory of the once mighty true empire of the 14th century that controlled southern India, whose relics now surround present-day Hampi.
“Victory City” is a reimagining of the rise and fall of a 14th century empire that ruled southern India. This is Salman Rushdie’s first novel since a knife attack left him seriously injured. Credit: Eliza Griffiths
“We know how it ends – it’s a ruin on the banks of the river,” said Booker Prize-winning author Kiran Desai, who read “Victory City” before its release. But through the gripping tale of the rise and fall of Vijayanagar, Desai – who was born and raised in India and the UK and is now based in New York – believes Rushdie gives readers “everything we need to know to counter the forces of tyranny, religious orthodoxy – all those terrifying things that so many nations around the world are going through right now.”
The “wisdom of a lifetime”
Steeped in magic, wonder, heartbreak and humor, “Victory City” explores all of life’s big questions in capital B, like what makes us human. (At first, as the city grows rapidly, Bukka is desperate that humans might come from vegetables. “I don’t want to find out that my great-grandfather was a brinjal or a pea”, laments- he.) Rushdie deftly navigates themes of religion, philosophy, power and justice as the story unfolds through the centuries, but at its center is a woman grappling with grief. , trying to remedy his own pain by creating a radical new place.
“A lot of (Rushdie’s) work is huge and voluminous…and this book actually feels pretty contained,” Desai said. “(It’s) a very wise book, as if someone had distilled great wisdom from a lifetime – here, the wisdom of a few centuries. It feels like a magic seed itself.”
Aging stubbornly eludes Pampa Kampana, but not her children or loved ones. Desai was drawn to how her “tender character”, as the matriarch of her family as well as the empire, faces all the thorns of motherhood. She also becomes the symbol of modern India, Desai explained.
The remains of the Vijayanagar Empire are found in Hampi, India, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Credit: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis/Getty Images
“There’s this hugely moving idea of Mother India bringing together, in the end, all of her warring offspring, and being the unifying force,” Desai said. “So here, again, (in Pampa Kampana), you have this mother figure trying her best.”
As is often the case with Rushdie’s work, Desai said “Victory City” can feel oddly prophetic – a bit like young Pampa Kampana, who knows how her story will end from the start.
“There’s always been something so odd about Salman’s writing that what he writes scarily happens frequently,” Desai said.
Add to Queue: History Meets Magic
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