‘Victory City’ is celebrated Booker-prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie’s latest published work, which he completed before last year’s attempt on his life. The writer who gave us ‘Midnight’s Children’, ‘The Satanic Verses’ and ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ has lost none of his flair for great storytelling, as evidenced by his latest offering.
Using magic realism – elements of the fantastic woven into a naturalistic narrative, ‘Victory City’ finds Rushdie in familiar territory and playing to his strengths. A vivid opening chapter finds a young girl and the heroine of the novel, Pampa Kampana, witnessing the shocking death of her mother in a public act of self-immolation. In her overwrought state, Pampa Kampana hosts the goddess Parvati, who bestows upon her some extraordinary gifts. In keeping with the moralistic core of fairy tales, these gifts turn out to be a mixed blessing.
Using seeds given to her by the goddess, Pampa Kampana grows a city from scratch. Needing men to help her to establish rule over the first generation of inhabitants, Pampa Kampana co-opts the assistance of cowherd brothers Hukka Raya and Bukka Raya. Whilst they worry about trivialities such as whether or not the male citizens are circumcised, the brand new city of Bisnaga is grown into being.
Much of the rest of the book is taken up with the development of Bisnaga and the impressive empire that it becomes. Hukka Raya and Bukka Raya take it in turns to rule over the city, and as time passes, new generations of citizens come along, as well as visitors to Bisnaga. One of the newcomers is Portuguese traveller Domingo Nunes, who has an affair with Pampa Kampana and fathers some of her illegitimate children. Questions over succession to the throne and warring dynastic factions naturally arise. At the same time, Pampa Kampana’s curse begins to reveal itself – the goddess has granted her a long life where she retains her youthful appearance over several generations. Thus she sees her lovers and children grow old, weak and die before she is even middle-aged. Who among us would desire or envy such a fate? Whilst the mortals play their brief parts in the rise of Bisnaga, Pampa Kampana must constantly adapt to a rapidly-developing empire, and fight to retain her power and significance in the life of the city.
‘Victory City’ has some delightful touches that imbue it with the charm of folk tales. There is a magical forest where uncertain men can turn into women, and where humans can converse with the other animal species such as birds and snakes. Other playful conceits embellish the storytelling. The unknown narrator tells us that his account is based upon the Jayaparajaya, Pampa Kampana’s epic poem which is her account of the history of Bisnaga from centuries earlier. Thus the narrator can comment favourably or unfavourably about the events of the story as they unfold.
As with all of Salman Rushdie’s works, ‘Victory City’ also has something to say about the contemporary world and human frailties. It is critical of fanaticism and is at pains to show how Bisnaga takes the wrong track under theocratic rule. In having Pampa Kampana as the strongest and most intelligent character, as well as the protagonist who shapes the action, Rushdie also strongly implies that the liberation of women is the key to the fairest society with the best outcomes. Petty jealousies and insecurities are also held up to gentle yet persuasive mockery.
From start to finish, the reader or listener can only be impressed by the literary flair of Rushdie’s compelling storytelling. The attention-grabbing opening as the women commit sati and a goddess intervenes in human affairs is just the start of an epic journey. The ups and downs of the empire is told with flair and a great deal of humour. It was only in the final part of the book, once Pampa Kampana has outlived every one of the characters introduced in the first part, that the story is anything other than totally engrossing. However, the narrative wraps up in a satisfying way, leaving readers sated.
The audiobook version is expertly read by Sid Sagar, who captures the poetry and cadences of Rushdie’s prose and conveys the story and its colourful characters with great clarity. ‘Victory City’ is a joy to listen to. The book is perfect reading material if you love allegorical tales told in a traditional way, which also examine truths about our own social problems. Salman Rushdie proves once again that he is a writer of considerable power and panache. He allows his characters to tell their story, and in so doing, permits his readers to derive their own meaning from a beautiful tale, well-told.
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK audio Narrator: Sid Sagar Publication date: 9th February 2023 Buy ‘Victory City’