Salman Rushdie’s first novel since he was attacked is a tale of magic
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Three decades after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, this spasm of religious barbarism seemed to have faded in favor of historical curiosity. After years of hunkering down under a multi-million dollar bounty, the author of “The Satanic Verses” had returned to something like a normal life.
In fact, in 2017, under the old formula Tragedy + Time = Comedy, the dead Ayatollah’s edict seemed so distant that Rushdie could appear as himself in a mocking fatwa arc on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
But the spores of intolerance had spread more widely and lay dormant longer than anyone expected.
In August, while preparing to speak at the Chautauqua Institution about the importance of providing a safe haven for exiled writers, Rushdie was attacked by a man wielding a knife. Before the assailant could be subdued, Rushdie had been stabbed 10 times. He survived, but reportedly lost sight in one eye and use of one hand.
Salman Rushdie and the Death of Safe Spaces
This horrific ordeal inspired a momentary flurry of lofty declarations about the sanctity of free speech. But writers around the world continue to be harassed, imprisoned and even killed for their work. And in the United States, religious zealots and their more cynical political allies have found that banning books, condemning writers, and threatening librarians remain effective tactics for raising funds and spreading their propaganda.
What a treat, then, at this difficult time to receive a magical new novel from Rushdie himself. Although “Victory City” was completed before the attack on Chautauqua, it is impossible not to read parts of this grand fantasy as an allegory of the author’s struggles against sectarian hatred and ignorance. Indeed, given the physical and emotional sacrifices he made, some of the coincidences between this story and his life are almost too poignant to bear.
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In the tongue-in-cheek introduction, Rushdie presents these pages not as his own creation, but simply as his “entirely derived” summary of an ancient epic poem. The Sanskrit text, he claims, was recently discovered in a clay pot amid the ruins of Vijayanagar. This immortal masterpiece, the “Jayaparajaya”, is the work of a prophetess named Pampa Kampana who died in 1565 at the age of 247.
Some of these details seem suspicious; others are at least tenuously drawn from history. Vijayanagar – “City of Victory” in Sanskrit – was once the capital of a vast Hindu empire in southern India. Records suggest a prosperous and culturally tolerant metropolis with great wealth and elaborate infrastructure. But the city eventually succumbed to the Muslim armies who devastated it so much that, to borrow from Shelley,
Of this colossal, boundless, bare wreckage
Lonely flat sands stretch far away.
In the mid-1980s, UNESCO declared the ruins on the banks of Tungabhadra a World Heritage Site. As this recovery project continues, Rushdie comes up with this equally ambitious recovery of the imagination. Posing as a mere translator and synthesizer, he moves forward lightly, only rarely interrupting to note a strange gap in the original text or to offer some editorial guidance. Otherwise, we race through the multi-generational adventures of a once-great kingdom as if stepping into an Indian version of “Game of Thrones.”
The story begins long before the rise and fall of the Vijayanagar Empire, in the smoldering remnants of a “little vanquished kingdom”. In this disarming and pragmatic scene, the surviving widows leave their fortress, light a large bonfire along the river, then walk through the flames.
Left behind – and traumatized – is Pampa Kampana, the 9-year-old daughter of one of the women. “For a long time Pampa tried to convince herself that her mother was just social and following the crowd,” Rushdie writes. But when she sees her mother’s roasted flesh coming off the bones, she makes up her mind. “She wouldn’t sacrifice her body just to follow dead men to the afterlife,” she thinks. “She would refuse to die young and live, instead, to be incredibly old.”
Drawn to her fierce vitality, a goddess begins to speak to and through the determined little girl. “You will fight to ensure that never again are women burned in this way,” proclaims the goddess, “and that men begin to view women in a new way.” Almost a decade later, when two cowherds come asking for wisdom, she blesses a bag of vegetable seeds and tells the brothers to sow them where her mother died.
At times like these – and they’re common in “Victory City” – Rushdie’s magical style works wonders. Within an hour of scattering the seeds, “the air began to shimmer”, he writes, and a spectacular city sprung up from the rocky ground – from the royal palace to the temple of the monkeys, canopied market stalls and villas of the aristocrats, along with thousands and thousands of people “born into adulthood from the brown earth, shaking the dirt off their clothes and thronging the streets”.
But they look more like zombies than Adam and Eve, and the fledgling town has no meaning, no story. So, “to cure the multitude of its unreality”, Pampa turns to fiction. She whispers a personality and a past in every virgin resident of Vijayanagar. “Even if the stories in their heads were fictions,” writes Rushdie, “fictions could be as powerful as stories, revealing new people to themselves, allowing them to understand their own nature and the nature of those who surround, and making them real.”
We can hear in this passage the philosophy of a man who has spent nearly 50 years telling stories that have become as powerful as history – from “Midnight’s Children”, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, to “The Satanic Verses,” which sparked protests. around the world. “It was the paradox of the whispered stories: they were nothing more than pretense but they created the truth.”
Pampa, a deeply sympathetic and vulnerable superhero, imbues her town with great wisdom, deep scholarship, and gender equality. She hopes to create a kind of feminist utopia, “a place of laughter, happiness and frequent and varied sexual pleasure”. But as other world creators have discovered, the gift of free will is problematic. For more than two centuries, she watches her kingdom grow and stumble. New leaders are rising – some wise, some foolish, some truly despicable. At certain times, Pampa held positions of great political power and importance; in others, she is despised and even exiled.
Despite its grandiose design, “Victory City” remains surprisingly modest in tone. The emphasis that sometimes weighed on Rushdie’s recent novels is here tamed, replaced by a softer humor, a more subtle satire. The vast period of history and the prophesied disaster at the end cast a veil of melancholy over the waves of political machinations that continue to rock the empire.
Throughout Pampa’s struggles, one force proves most toxic to her own hopes and the city’s survival: religious intolerance. And Rushdie is at his best and most experienced when deconstructing the foundations of militant spiritual purity. Despite Pampa’s best efforts, with each new generation, private resentments, inadequacies, and fears draw people into cults of extremism. For a certain small but inextinguishable segment of the population, knowing that others might think something different or enjoy themselves in a different way is too intolerable to bear. In the words of a court adviser, “There are sad bags and lonely hearts made sadder and lonelier by all the portraits of other people’s joy.” As Gulliver travels the globe, Pampa sails through time, discovering new examples of human vanity and judgment in each era.
But as extraordinary as her powers are, she can’t do everything to make her city prosper or, in the long term, even keep it standing. “The supply of magic isn’t endless,” she told a king. (Like Milton, Rushdie seems to know that omnipotence saps dramatic tension.) But Pampa can whisper, and she can persuade, and even after her enemies blind her, she can write.
“The miraculous and the everyday are two halves of a whole,” she says. And that, by the way, is perhaps the best description of Rushdie’s job.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for the Washington Post.
Random house. 336 pages. $30
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