Victory City by Salman Rushdie

(Random House)

Review by Walter Cummins

In his latest novel, ironically titled Victory City, Salman Rushdie appears to have pulled out all stops on his inventive powers as he dramatizes the two-hundred-and-fifty-year history of the Bisnaga Empire—from the wonders of its origin to the politics of its doom. He conjures a collection of imaginative characters and events immersed in a complexity of hopes, fears, jealousies, betrayals, and violence. At its core, the story replicates the fate of many cities throughout world history, but here dramatized through Rushdie’s unique vision.

The city itself and its roots come from actual fourteenth-century events, and the telling echoes Rushdie’s deep familiarity with classic Sanskrit epics like the Mahabharataand Ramayana. An actual medieval Vijayanagara empire did exist, the Sanskrit name translating as Victory City in English. Its actual founders and first two kings were fourteenth-century brothers Hukka and Bukka Sangama, who have important roles as characters in the novel. The large armies that rode on elephants for battles also actually existed.

But such facts are only seeds for Rushdie’s creativity, like the fictional seeds he has Pampa Kampana sow in midair to flourish into a magnificent city: “After no more than an hour, they saw the air begin to shimmer as it does during the hottest hours of the hottest days, and then the miracle city started growing before their astonished eyes, the stone edifices of the central zone pushing up from the rocky ground, and the majesty of the royal palace, and the first great temple too.”

Having literally made the city, Pampa Kampana finds herself obligated to populate it with people and events: “… writing the grand narrative of the city, creating its story now that she had created its life.” For the next two and a half centuries she conjures a Sanskrit recreation of the history she witnessed, shared, and made possible during her remarkably long lifetime. Throughout, she is “lost in the ecstasy of the act of creation.” What she invokes is a combination of memory and imagination.

The city thrived in the richness of its fictions, the tales whispered in their ears by Pampa Kampana, stories whose fictionality was drowned out and forever lost beneath the clamorous rhythm of the new day, and the walls around the citizens had risen to their final, impregnable height, and above the arch of the great barbican gate, engraved in stone, was the city’s name, which all its inhabitants knew for certain, and would insist on the knowledge if you had asked them, to be a name from the remote past, handed down through the centuries from the time of legend, when the Monkey God Hanuman was alive and living in Kishkindha nearby: Bisnaga.

But Rushdie adds a further complication to this novel, assuming the role of the prose reteller of Pampa Kampana’s epic poem discovered in a long-buried clay pot. Rushdie reminds his readers that his version is far inferior to hers, which—of course—doesn’t actually exist. He refers to himself as “The humble author of this present (and wholly derivative) text.” However, his novel does exist, and all that he claims Pampa Kampana has imagined—a great city and all its inhabitants and happenings—are what he, like all other novelists, has actually created.

While Rushdie appears to be playful in this narrative contrivance, I believe he is conveying a larger message about the relationship of literature and history. The historical city is gone. It’s Pampa Kampana’s poem that survives, words living while people and places no longer exist: “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. This was the paradox of the whispered stories: they were no more than make-believe but they created the truth …”

Coincidentally, I had been pondering this fact before I came upon the Rushdie novel, thinking how almost all the people and happenings that fill the day’s news and consume the thoughts of millions will, at most, survive as footnotes in future histories. This first struck me long ago when I read Dante’s Inferno and found myself distracted by footnotes explaining the mini biographies of all those the poet encounters through his descent down the nine circles of hell. Dante used the vivid tortures of the damned to get even with dozens of political enemies from his time in Florence. Important as some were in fourteenth-century Florence, they would have vanished from memory if Dante had not given them a poetic existence.

Rushdie’s Pampa Kampana, living in Bisnaga at the same time Dante lived in Florence, also suffered periods of exile from her city. That similarity is probably coincidental, but both the imaginary and actual poet turned their experiences into epics. Dante’s is one of the world’s major literary works. Rushdie pretends to give Pampa Kampana’s equivalent significance by writing this novel. She does triumph over those who exiled, imprisoned, and even blinded her. Her true triumph is her surviving poem. Both Pampa Kampa’s epic and Salman Rushie’s novel end with these lines:

Only these words describing those things remain.

They will be remembered in the way I have chosen to remember them.

Their deeds will only be known in the way they have been set down.

They will mean what I wish them to mean.

I myself am nothing now. All that remains is this city of words.

Words are the only victors.