Salman Rushdie’s “Victory City” is a superb, complex celebration of storytelling that inhabits a unique space somewhere between an epic poem, a history book, and an adventure novel with magical elements, political commentary, and even a healthy dose of romance. Taking place over two and a half centuries, “Victory City” chronicles the birth, rise, and fall of an empire born of magic seeds, but it also tackles a plethora of timely subjects and proves, once again — and while the brutal attack he suffered in August 2022 is still fresh in the collective consciousness — that Rushdie is one of literature’s most vibrant voices.
Pampa Kampana was only 9 years old when she watched her mother, silent, oppressed, and defeated, walk into a fire along with other women. The harrowing event, which took place in the aftermath of a skirmish between two kingdoms in 14th-century southern India, left Pampa alone, deracinated, and heartbroken. But then she encountered a deity that possessed her and gave her magical powers. The goddess who possessed Pampa and spoke through her mouth told her she would play a huge role in the birth of an empire. After moving into a cave with a philosopher, Pampa eventually handed two brothers, Hukka and Bukka, a sack of magical seeds. The brothers put those seeds in the ground and sat back to watch a city — Bisnaga — sprout, complete with buildings and people. Over the next 250 years, Bisnaga went through many rulers, changes, and wars, and experienced plenty of religious and political upheaval. And Pampa Kampana, cursed to a very long life, enjoyed, suffered, or played a major role in all of it.
The story is presented as a translation of an ancient epic written by Pampa, complete with quotes, poems, and songs from the original, comments from the translator, and even references to passages that were left out because they were too long or had nothing to do with the main story being told at different times. The result is wildly entertaining and engaging, and it allows Rushdie to masterfully juggle two and a half centuries worth of events, changes, and an ever-growing list of characters.
“History is the consequence, not only of people’s actions, but also of their forgetfulness.” This line, spoken by Pampa while she is hiding away from the king in a magical forest and planning her return to Bisnaga, perfectly encapsulates one of the core philosophies of “Victory City”: to forget is to repeat the same mistakes. When the city and its people were born out of those seeds, Pampa wanted to move away from everything bad she had ever known, so she whispered a manufactured history and a unique identity into the ears of each individual. The plan was to have a perfect society, one in which men and women were equal, art was celebrated, magic was part of reality, syncretism was accepted, and homosexuality was seen as perfectly normal. With time, however, that changed and people began to move in the opposite direction.
Eventually, one of Pampa’s sons inherited the throne and pushed against everything his mother had worked for since the beginning, stating that his narrative was the only truth, that everything his mother had ever said was a lie, and that a “woman’s place is not on the throne” but “is, and will henceforth be, in the home.”
“Victory City” contains enough adventures and action to keep even the most demanding readers entertained, but it’s also the kind of novel that welcomes — no, that invites — introspection. Rushdie, who has never shied away from politics or talking about religion, infuses the narrative with a collection of relevant topics: women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, the darker side of puritanism, the evils of bigotry, the senselessness of perpetuating gender roles, and the detrimental effects of violent political agendas that seek to destroy all forms of dissention. Pampa starts out as a benevolent creator, but eventually is forced to morph into a revolutionary, and her transformation feels like a call to action.
While the topics are incredibly current, the pages of “Victory City,” which takes place between the 14th and 16th centuries, are full of magic, and the storytelling is packed with echoes of the epic poem this tale purportedly is, as well as passages that deliver everything from fables to tragedies to myths to the end result of the narrative, which is the emergence of Pampa Kampana as a legend. In less capable hands, this deeply complex story would’ve been too messy, but in Rushdie’s, it is superb.
From the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini back in February 1989 calling for Rushdie’s death to the brutal stabbing he suffered in Chautauqua, N.Y., in August 2022 at the hands of a man who thought he had attacked Islam, Rushdie has a long history of people trying to silence him, and “Victory City” feels like a triumphant scream against censorship as well as a celebration of language, storytelling, and otherness. Pampa states that perhaps human history is “the brief illusion of happy victories set in a long continuum of bitter, disillusioning defeats,” and it’s hard to argue with that. She also says that “some people preferred hatred,” and that, sadly, is a truth we see every day. However, literature can offer guides to a better future, even when it’s fiction about the past, and “Victory City” is precisely that.
VICTORY CITY: A Novel
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, 352 pages, $30
Gabino Iglesias is a book critic and the author of “The Devil Takes You Home.”