Photos: Salman Rushdie (© Rachel Eliza); Lotus Mahal at sunset, Hampi, Karnataka, India. (sonatali/Getty Images)
Salman Rushdie Plays With Storytelling and His Complicated History in ‘Victory City’
The vaunted author's latest novel, completed four months before a near-fatal stabbing, underscores how narratives can be life-affirming and life-threatening / BY Elizabeth Renzetti / February 7th, 2023
If I tell you the final line in Salman Rushdie’s new novel is “words are the only victors,” I’m not spoiling anything. If you’ve read Rushdie, you know he believes in the soul-saving power of language – bawdy, fantastical, lush, myth-making language. The book he wrote for his son Zafar when he was hiding from a barbaric fatwa was called Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
This latest novel is called Victory City, but it could have been called Pampa and the City of Stories. At its heart is the quasi-divine Pampa Kampana, who is given a gift that is – in the way of gifts given in fables – both a blessing and a curse.
At the age of nine, Pampa witnesses her mother and the other women in her community walk into a funeral pyre and burn alive. The goddess Pampa, seeing the child’s distress, begins to speak through her, and blesses her with story-telling skills and an unnaturally long life. Or is it a gift? The goddess says: “You will fight to make sure no more women are ever burned in this fashion, and that men start considering women in new ways, and you will live just long enough to witness both your success and your failure, to see it all and tell its story, even though once you have finished telling it, you will die immediately and no one will remember you for four hundred and fifty years.”
This is 75-year-old Rushdie at the top of his game, playing tricks with storytelling – Victory City is told by an unnamed narrator who has found Pampa’s buried tale – and his own complicated history. One of the little games that novelists play to keep themselves amused is to ask each other: Would you rather have fame now and then be forgotten, or be famous after death? But Rushdie is in a unique position among authors, at least since the dying Ayatollah Khomeini deemed his 1989 novel The Satanic Verses blasphemous, and put a bounty on his head: Stories have been both life-sustaining and death-provoking. His stories will not be forgotten for a long, long time. A blessing or a curse?
Pampa, having avoided the clutches of a lecherous mystic, plants the seeds for a new city, Bisnaga, in 14th-century India. It is a magical city, which Pampa creates by whispering personal stories into the ears of all the people who live in it. Novelists often complain that their characters won’t do what they’re supposed to, and Pampa discovers this the hard way: Brutish kings ignore her pleas for tolerance, her lovers wander off, her own children are, for the most part, ungrateful brats. “Pampa learned the lesson that every creator must learn, even God. Once you had created your characters, you had to be bound by their choices.”
After 247 years of life, Pampa is exhausted and drained. She’s tried to build a world based on equality and compassion, and her success can best be described as patchy. In return for creating a kingdom, she is given a terrible punishment, one that reflects the grotesque attack that Salman Rushdie suffered last summer at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state. To say any more would be a spoiler, and take away the power of a truly shocking moment in the book. It’s staggering to realize he finished the novel four months before the attack. (He lost the use of one eye, and much of the use of one hand, as well as other serious injuries in the stabbing.)
Most novelists loathe a strictly autobiographical reading of their work, understandably. If you’re only a life-regurgitating machine, what kind of artist are you? It’s Rushdie’s curse that everything he writes will be seen through the lens of two personal cataclysms, the fatwa and now the attack. I was lucky enough to be at the 1992 PEN Canada event at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, where Rushdie made a surprise appearance. Canadian novelists and then-Ontario premier Bob Rae bravely embraced him at a time when the rest of the world was still in shunning mode. People wore little buttons that said, “I am Salman Rushdie.” I remember thinking, am I though? I’m not as talented, or as persecuted. I get to go home to a nice bed tonight.
Through the years of his isolation, and then the 20 years that followed when he was a society-page fixture while living in Manhattan, Rushdie continued to write and publish. As he wrote in his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton, it was in his blood. There was no other option: “Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away.”
That defiance is on every page of Victory City. Not just defiance, but energy and humour, too. Bisnaga is a city full of self-important clerics and kings brought low by hubris, like the one who’s killed in battle when he gets off his camel to have a pee. Pampa, sometimes wearily and sometimes with joy, continues to breathe stories into the ears of people who need them.
“I have finished telling it,” Pampa says at the end of the novel. “Release me.” Her work of the imagination is done. I couldn’t help but think of these words when I read David Remnick’s new interview with Rushdie in the New Yorker. It’s the first time Rushdie has spoken publicly since the attack, and there’s a profound poignancy when he talks about how his writing has been affected. “I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I sit down to write, and nothing happens. I write, but it’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write and that I delete the next day. I’m not out of that forest yet, really.” He tells Remnick that he’s “just beginning to feel the return of the juices.”
Yet, he tells Remnick, he’s going to keep at it even if he doesn’t know whether there’s another book in him: “All I can do is this.” It feels cruel in a way to ask more from an author who’s already given the world so much. If it turns out that Victory City is Rushdie’s final novel – and I hope it’s not – then we should bask in the gifts of two glorious storytellers, the creator and one he created.