February 2023

Victory City

By Salman Rushdie
Review by
Victory City is accessible in a way that suggests Salman Rushdie had fun writing it, but this is no lightweight novel.
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With a magical protagonist and a vivid cast of heroic and devious characters, it’s easy to imagine Salman Rushdie’s fantastical 15th novel as a thrilling, multipart Bollywood epic. Victory City marks the author’s return to the long arc of Indian history, taking readers on a frisky romp through nearly three centuries of south Indian lore.

Rushdie’s endnotes cite numerous historical works he consulted about the Vijayanagara Empire (14th–17th centuries) while composing the novel. Google Vijayanagar, the city in which the novel is set, and you’ll discover its translation from Sanskrit is indeed “City of Victory.” Search the internet for the shepherd brothers Hukka and Bukka, and you’ll find they were the first kings of the empire. Look for Domingo Nunes, a character who humorously reappears in various incarnations to Pampa Kampana, the novel’s heroine, and you’ll encounter an amalgam of two Portuguese men who wrote with amazement about their early travels through the empire.

But search for Pampa Kampana, and nothing. She is Rushdie’s marvelous invention. At 9 years old, she witnesses the downfall of the old king. She sees the submissive women of the defeated kingdom, including her mother, go willingly to their deaths by fire. But Pampa rejects this path, steps away from the fire and, in anger and anguish, is overtaken by the voice of the gods. She becomes a prophet who gives the shepherd brothers the magical seeds to grow Victory City. She whispers the history of the future empire into the ears of its newly formed citizens. She gives them a past and a present. 

Over the 247 years of her life, Pampa sees the birth of the empire, suffers exile in the Forest of Women, stealthily returns to eventual triumph and then experiences the empire’s final fall. She writes this history down as the empire collapses and hides her account in an urn. Four hundred years later, her words are discovered.

Rushdie tells his tale with a generous and irreverent spirit. Victory City is accessible in a way that suggests he had fun writing it, but this is no lightweight novel. Pampa is the incarnation of the humane values of this (or any) empire, and when she is in ascendance, the empire’s arts and beneficial technologies are ennobled. Women serve as warriors and empire officials. People of all religions are embraced. The empire comes close to being what today we would call an open society, and its collapse is a direct result of turning its back on these values.

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Victory City

Victory City

By Salman Rushdie
Random House
ISBN 9780593243398

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