Salman Rushdie’s post-attack novel ‘Victory City’ enjoys pre-order sales surge

Critics enthusiastically embrace the latest epic by the India-born British-American writer, who had finished the manuscript shortly before a fanatic attacked him with a knife at a public event in August

Salman Rushdie, pictured in October 2019 at the Cheltenham literary festival in the United Kingdom.
Salman Rushdie, pictured in October 2019 at the Cheltenham literary festival in the United Kingdom.David Levenson (Getty Images)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

Salman Rushdie has gone back to his origins. To chaotic and indomitable India; to delve into the crucible of its history and its myths. And to literature, from which he was nearly separated by an attack in New York last August. His new novel, Victory City, now exacts a complete revenge: the old familiar Rushdie is back in the saddle, overflowing and torrential, reinforced in his literary mission – freedom through words –by the stab wounds inflicted on him by a follower of the Iranian ayatollahs in an event that kept him from public life and left him with long-lasting effects such as the loss of an eye and reduced mobility in one hand. The writer had just finished the manuscript of Victory City, due for release on Tuesday, before the attack.

That deferred execution of the fatwa that Tehran issued against Rushdie in 1989 (and rescinded in 1998) for his novel The Satanic Verses has therefore left no trace in his new work, an Indian epic laced with humor that has been greeted by critics with heaps of praise. “Colossal and deep, lofty and resplendent. Every page is magical, every page is splendid,” said writer Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours. “An epic tale that takes us back to key questions about what it means to be human, to be authentic, to love and to grieve,” according to novelist A.M. Homes. “A saga of love, adventure and myth that constitutes in itself a testimony to the power of storytelling,” according to the American bookstore chain Barnes & Noble. All the main bookstores in the US, where the writer has lived for years, have reported a surge in pre-orders for the novel, illustrating the great expectation generated by the perennial candidate to win a Nobel prize.

Victory City tells the story of a girl named Pampa Kampana who lives in 14th-century India and is possessed by a goddess who begins to speak through her mouth. By divine design, the girl will be instrumental in the creation of a great city that will be called the “city of victory.” She will be the intermediary, the medium, but she will never become the queen.

The main character thus becomes an uncrowned factotum of the empire whose adventures are documented in a narrative poem in Sanskrit placed in a clay pot and later buried underground, and whose discovery guides the story plot. The narrator says that Victory City is the abbreviated translation of Pampa’s epic, Jayaparajaya (a compound word meaning victory and defeat at the same time), told in a “more simple” and abbreviated way than the original 24,000 verses.

Writers and supporters of Salman Rushdie, at a tribute to the writer in New York a week after the attack.
Writers and supporters of Salman Rushdie, at a tribute to the writer in New York a week after the attack.BRENDAN MCDERMID (Reuters)

The story takes place in a real setting: the Vijayanagara empire, which covered most of southern India in the 15th and 16th centuries and was a melting pot of cultures and ideas. This is the backdrop against which battles take place between forgotten kingdoms and lords of the war, there are magical encounters and episodes of treachery and greed; we read about hidden powers that escape human nature. Everything bubbles within the pages of Victory City, even gender identity: the character of Pampa Kampana, who aspired to the throne without achieving it, could be viewed as a vindication of women in a patriarchal world (the collective suicide in a pyre of her mother and other soldiers’ widows is a reminder of the fate of Indian women). The novel is a great fresco, almost a cosmogony. But it also contains messages that, in light of the attack suffered by Rushdie, acquire particular relevance: the ever-looming shadow of intolerance, which has haunted the writer for decades; plurality as a desire that gets frustrated when it changes from ideas to facts. These issues were already present in Midnight’s Children (1981) and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995).

Those who predicted the death of the novel must surely have walked back that forecast with each new Rushdie book, and Victory City makes number 16. In addition to magical realism, Rushdie’s latest novel contains a lot of factual history encoded in a game of mirrors or matrioskas, the Russian dolls. The entire narrative has a historical basis. The brothers and military leaders Hukka and Bukka really existed, as did the city they founded after Pampa scattered a bunch of seeds to the wind. Vijayanagar, capital of the empire from 1336 to 1565 – the period of time that Pampa lived in the story – survives today in the ruins of Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Victory City is presented in the first lines as a manuscript found in a long-buried clay pot, an “immense narrative poem” in Sanskrit written by Pampa Kampana herself: the secret history of an empire, condensed by an unnamed present-day scribe, “a humble author, neither a scholar nor a poet, but simply a spinner of yarns,” the narrator says of himself. A demiurge with a name and surname: Salman Rushdie, author of this modern Ramayana.

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