Three decades after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, that spasm of religious barbarism seemed to have faded to a historical curiosity. After years of crouching beneath a multimillion-dollar bounty, the author of “The Satanic Verses” had returned to something like normal life.
But the spores of intolerance had scattered wider 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 to exiled writers, Rushdie was attacked by a man wielding a knife. Before the assailant could be restrained, Rushdie had been stabbed 10 times. He survived, but reportedly lost sight in one eye and the use of one hand.
That horrific ordeal inspired a momentary surge of noble declarations about the sanctity of freedom of expression. But writers around the world continue to be harassed, jailed and even killed for their work. And in the United States, religious fanatics and their most cynical political allies have discovered that banning books, condemning writers and threatening librarians remain effective tactics for raising money and spreading their propaganda.
What a delight, then, in this fraught moment to be given a magical new novel by Rushdie himself. Though “Victory City” was completed before the Chautauqua attack, it’s 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’s made, some coincidences between this story and his life are almost too poignant to bear.
In the tongue-in-cheek introduction, Rushdie presents these pages not as his own creation but merely his “wholly derivative” 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 those details sound suspect; others are at least tenuously drawn from history. Vijayanagar — “City of Victory” in Sanskrit — really was once the capital of a vast Hindu empire in southern India. Records suggest a thriving, culturally tolerant metropolis of great riches and elaborate infrastructure. But the city eventually succumbed to Muslim armies that so thoroughly laid waste to it that, to borrow from Shelley,
Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In the mid-1980s, UNESCO declared the ruins on the banks of the Tungabhadra a World Heritage site. While that reclamation project continues, Rushdie offers this equally ambitious reclamation of the imagination. Posing as a mere translator and summarizer, he treads lightly, interrupting only rarely to note some strange lacuna in the original text or to offer a bit of editorial guidance. Otherwise, we race through the multigenerational adventures of a once-great kingdom as though we’re plunging into an Indian version of “Game of Thrones.”
The tale starts long before the rise and fall of the Vijayanagar empire, in the smoldering remains of a “tiny, defeated kingdom.” In this disarmingly matter-of-fact scene, the surviving widows leave their fortress, build a great bonfire along the river and then walk into the flames.
Left behind — and traumatized — is Pampa Kampana, the 9-year-old daughter of one of the women. “For a long moment Pampa tried to convince herself that her mother was just being sociable and going along with the crowd,” Rushdie writes. But when she sees her mother’s roasted flesh fall away from the bones, she makes up her mind. “She would not sacrifice her body merely to follow dead men into the afterworld,” she thinks. “She would refuse to die young and live, instead, to be impossibly, defiantly old.”
Attracted to her fierce vitality, a goddess begins speaking to and through the determined little girl. “You will fight to make sure that no more women are ever burned in this fashion,” the goddess proclaims, “and that men start considering women in new ways.” 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 at the spot where her mother died.
At such moments — and they’re frequent in “Victory City” — Rushdie’s magical style unfurls wonders. Within an hour after scattering the seeds, “the air began to shimmer,” he writes, and a spectacular city thrust out of the rocky ground — from the royal palace to the Monkey Temple, the canopied market stalls and the aristocrats’ villas, along with thousands and thousands of people “born full-grown from the brown earth, shaking the dirt off their garments, and thronging the streets.”
But they’re more like zombies than Adam and Eve, and the nascent city has no meaning, no history. And so, “to cure the multitude of its unreality,” Pampa turns to fiction. She whispers a personality and a past into every blank resident of Vijayanagar. “Even if the stories in their heads were fictions,” Rushdie writes, “fictions could be as powerful as histories, revealing the new people to themselves, allowing them to understand their own natures and the natures of those around them, and making them real.”
One can hear in this passage the philosophy of a man who’s spent almost 50 years spinning tales that have become as powerful as history — from “Midnight’s Children,” which won the Booker Prize in 1981, to “The Satanic Verses,” which ignited protests around the world. “This was the paradox of the whispered stories: they were no more than make-believe but they created the truth.”
Pampa, a deeply sympathetic and vulnerable superhero, imbues her city 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 variegated sexual delight.” 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 rulers rise up — some wise, some foolish, a few truly despicable. In certain eras, Pampa occupies positions of great political power and prominence; in others, she’s scorned and even exiled.
Despite its grand design, “Victory City” remains surprisingly modest in tone. The bombastic quality that sometimes burdened Rushdie’s recent novels is here tamed, replaced by a gentler humor, a subtler satire. The story’s vast time frame and the prophesied disaster at the end cast a pall of melancholy over the waves of political machinations that keep buffeting the empire.
Throughout Pampa’s travails, one force proves most poisonous to her own hopes and the city’s survival: religious intolerance. And Rushdie is at his best and most experienced when he deconstructs the foundations of militant spiritual purity. Despite Pampa’s best efforts, in each new generation private resentments, inadequacies and fears lure people into cults of extremism. For a certain small but unquenchable segment of the population, the knowledge that others might think something different or enjoy themselves in some different way is too intolerable to endure. In the words of one court adviser, “There are sad sacks and lonelyhearts made sadder-sackier and lonely-heartier by all the portraits of other people’s joy.” As Gulliver traversed the globe, so Pampa sails through time, discovering in each era new examples of men’s vanity and judgment.
But extraordinary as her powers may be, she can’t do everything to keep her city prosperous or, ultimately, even to keep it standing. “The supply of magic is not endless,” she tells one king. (Like Milton, Rushdie seems to know that omnipotence saps dramatic tension.) But Pampa can whisper, and she can persuade, and even after her foes have blinded her, she can write.
“The miraculous and the everyday are two halves of a single whole,” she says. And that, incidentally, may be the best description of Rushdie’s work.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
By Salman Rushdie
Random House. 336 pp. $30
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