On the last day of her life, when she was two hundred and forty-seven years old, the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampana completed her immense narrative poem about Bisnaga and buried it in a clay post sealed with wax in the heart of the ruined Royal Enclosure, as a message to the future.
I finished reading Victory City by Salman Rushdie a month ago.
I loved it so much, it became one of my #slowreads where I savoured every moment of Rushdie’s extravagant, epic story-telling. I slowed right down during the second half of the book in particular because I did not want my time with this story to end. I enjoyed it so much that I also struggled to know how best to write about it.
Should I rave or research, summarise or sweet talk you all into reading this book?
What happened instead was sinustitus. For the past three weeks my brain has struggled to pay attention and focus. What little ability I have each day, got used up at work as we
endured embraced the delights of a new operating system. I’m hoping this holiday period will finally allow me to fully recover and get back on track. A few days at home with the boys and a few days in our house in the mountains should be the tonic I need.
Today I’ve been for a morning walk to clear my head, getting home just as the rain started. We plan to go to the fish markets later to gather the final ingredients for our Friday night family paella. If it’s not too busy (ha!) we may be tempted to stop for a sashimi lunch.
But for now, I have the main part of the house to myself. B22 & GF are still sleeping and Mr Books has disappeared into the bathroom. Before he retreated upstairs, he presented me with coffee and a hot cross bun. The only sounds are the gurgle of the drainpipes and the swoosh of tyres on wet road whenever a car goes by. A lovely way to start a holiday week.
As you can see, though, I’ve chosen to go with avoidance re my book response!
Okay Bron time to focus – you can do it! Let’s start with a little research.
Rushdie has created a story about a fictional empire, Bisnaga, based on a real one in southern India called Vijayanagar (which means City of Victory in Sanskrit) between 1336 and roughly 1614. The city was built on the Tungabhadra River and grew to be the largest Hindi empire in the south. All that remains now are ruins, slowly being restored and protected as a 1986 UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins can be found near modern day Hampi in Karnataka. For more information and some photos, I found this site useful.
Rushdie begins with an origin myth – a young girl traumatised by the untimely death of her parents; her father when she was a baby; her mother deliberately and ceremonially, along with all the other women who chose to die by fire after the battle that destroyed their city, “slowly but with absolute conviction…to join the bonfire of the dead“.
Young Pampa watches on horrified, in disbelief. She realises at the tender age of nine that her childhood is now over. She vows to not die young, but to live and be “impossibly, defiantly old“. At this point she is visited by a “celestial blessing“. The goddess Pampa’s voice “as old as Time” began to speak through her mouth. Young Pampa was terrified but also reassured; the voice was full of kindness, goodness and majesty. The goddess issued a prophecy; that from this place of death and fire a new city would rise that would be the wonder of the world. She charges young Pampa to fight,
…to make sure that no more women are ever burned in this fashion, and that men start considering women in new ways, and you will live just long enough to witness both your success and your failure, to see it all and tell its story, even though once you finished telling it you will die immediately and nobody will remember you for four hundred and fifty years.
But as we all know from previous myths and stories, celestial blessings can also be a curse.
Cue Salman Rushdie, storyteller extraordinare, to fill in the blanks, to flesh out Pampa’s life story, and that of the city she created, from the surviving narrative poem mentioned in the opening lines. The story of Pampa and Bisnaga are irrevocably intertwined, told from birth through to war and exile, followed by glory and peace before the inevitable fall.
Obviously, I enjoyed reading this story as much as I believe Rushdie did in telling it. But what was he trying to tell us?
This was more than just historical fiction, or a magical tale about the rise and fall of a medieval empire. As I was reading I could not but help reflect on the rise and fall of other empires. The Akkadian Empire, the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Persian Emprie, the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Mongols, the Aztec and Mayan, the Khmer and the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and the British Empire.
They all rise and they all eventually fall, enjoying a Golden Era in between. If they’re lucky they have a Renaissance, before fading away, almost completely. Lost from our view, discarded by history; the lessons once so heavily learnt, now lost, doomed to be repeated by the next empire that comes along. They might leave behind some great art, music, ideas and philosophy, but they also leave behind chaos and damage. Enmity over borders, religious strife and intolerance, a decimated native population, class and caste divisions and a devastated environment are just some of the spoils of empire building.
We knew only the ruins that remained, and our memory of its history was ruined as well, by the passage of time, the imperfections of memory, and the falsehoods of those who came after.
Is this what Rushdie wanted us to see?
That all empires and super powers come and go, and that there is a pattern to their rise and inevitable fall? Is he asking us to look at the empires currently dominating our world scene and questioning where they might be in the timeline of rising and falling? Are we being asked to consider the lessons that history has to teach us? To challenge the fictions we tell ourselves about our origins? To acknowledge that our lives are influenced by the stories and myths whispered to us throughout our lives?
Fictions can be as powerful as histories….This was the paradox of the whispered stories: they were no more than make-believe but they created the truth.
Perhaps what Rushdie is asking us to recognise is that the truths we hold to be self-evident are simply stories, part of the myth-making process we all engage in, part of the narrative that makes us who we are. It is only natural then, that different groups, in different regions and times, will have different stories and different truths which they cherish above all others. I believe that Rushdie is asking us to see this for what it is and to be tolerant of those whose story is different from the one we choose for ourselves.
Everyone creates a narrative about their own life story that makes sense to them. Empires and governments do so on a larger, grander scale. The role of the storyteller is to reflect what they see, to delve into universal themes, and to encourage readers to empathise and respect stories that might challenge their own.
This is what Rushdie has achieved in Victory City. A story safely set in the past that shines a light on the world we live in now.
After the shocking attack on Salman Rushdie in Chautauqua, New York last year, a number of renowned writers held public readings of his work in solidarity, including Booker Prize winning novelist Kiran Desai who said,
He has been a writer who has created a stage for all of us who believe in a secular vision of the world and he and opened the door for so many writers. Free speech is a crucial matter in so many parts of the world and now he has taken on physical harm to uphold that vision.
Desai described Victory City as “a distillation of wisdom. A belief that beautiful words and stories will remain in our memories and whisper through the dream of subsequent generations.”
Favourite Quote: A difficult choice as I underlined large swathes of this book, however, I always love a bit of metafiction, so this is the one I choose today.
Once you had created your characters, you had to be bound by their choices. You were no longer free to remake them according to your own desires. They were what they were and they would do what they would do.
I loved Pampa’s story, but it was her three daughters who stole my heart in the end – Yotshna, Zerelda and Yuktasri. Courageous, loving, warrior women who created their own stories for themselves.
Favourite or Forget:
Victory City is a keeper. It will sit alongside my much loved copy of Midnight’s Children, next to the ever hopeful copy of The Enchantress of Florence, waiting its turn to be read.
Lisa @ANZ LitLovers also found it scintillating.
Title: Victory City Author: Salman Rushdie ISBN: 9781787333451 Imprint: Jonathan Cape Published: 21 February 2023 Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 342 Dates Read: 2 February 2023 - 11 March 2023 Origin: ARC
|This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.|
27 thoughts on “Victory City | Salman Rushdie #historicalfiction”
Well, if I hadn’t already read and loved it, you would certainly have sweet-talked me into it!
I hope you’re on the mend.
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I cannot believe how long it took me to finish this post! But I’m glad it has the desired effect 🙂
You certainly do make this sound a compelling read and an immersive universe to dwell in and ponder on. Great review! Sorry about the sinusitis interrupting your flow.
I haven’t seen many blogger reviews for Victory City yet, so I hope this helps others decide to read it too.
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Rushdie writes both these types of fantasy books, and literary fiction novels. I think I prefer his literary ones. But yes, he is a marvelous writer.
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The best comparison for me so far is that if you loved Midnight’s Children, you’ll love Victory City too. I didn’t get on with his more recent books at all, I’m afraid.
Ah, no… I’ve read only his Golden House, which I loved (no fantasy in it at all), and his Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which was good, but not my thing (because of the fantasy bits).
I am soon going to start my third Salman Rushdie novel, but I have to admit I haven’t liked any of them. I haven’t read this one, though.
I didn’t enjoy his more recent ones either (The Golden House, Quichotte) but Midnight’s Children is one of my all-time favourite books. Victory City isn’t quite in that league for me, but it is a keeper. I’d like to reread it now I know a little more about the empire the story was based on.
Unfortunately, The Golden House is the one on my pile. I couldn’t finish Quichotte.
Having had a mixed reaction to Rushdie in the past, I had decided to wait to see the reviews of this one before jumping in, and you have definitely tempted me! Sounds wonderful!
If Midnight’s Children was one of the ones you liked, then this might work for you too. But I did read some mixed reviews on Goodreads after writing this. It’s literary but with some mystical elements that might not appeal to everyone.
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Well, you already put Victory City on my TBR, now I think you’ve moved it up the pile. Have a wonerful, restful break with lots of great reading and family time!
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did 🙂
I’ve never read Rushdie but I have put this one on reserve at my library after I read Lisa’s review. I think I’m about 7th in the queue so I might get it by Christmas. 😆
Ha! If everyone reads it as slowly as I did, then yes!
Rushdie isn’t for everyone, and historical fiction with some magical elements doesn’t work for some either, which is my way of saying some of the seven may bail early!
I don’t know how I feel about Rushdie. I disliked Midnight’s Children, thought the Satanic Verses was very good and one other (based on 1001 nights) ok. You are very persuasive about this one, but my overall feeling is that he uses a lot of magic to very little effect.
Can you remember why you didn’t like Midnight’s Children?
The details of the story itself are not very clear for me anymore, but my memory of reading it is very clear. It was my first visit to WA in 1998. I stayed with a school friend in Perth for part of it but then travelled around the Margaret River area and down south, reading MC the whole way. In fact, a rainy day in Denmark saw me curled up the room I had booked for the night, as I finished it. I now have images of India and south-west WA weirdly mixed in together! I have wondered since how much of my love of the story was situational?
As for the few magical elements in this story (Pampa’s long life, creating a city from seeds, being able to turn into a bird) – I think they may have been included to reflect the miracles often used in religious stories to explain what was once unexplainable.
Too much MR is the short answer. Perhaps if I re-read it I would integrate it better with the Indian/spiritual/traditional side of his writing. And perhaps I would be annoyed all over again.
Lovely place Denmark. I should have gone down there for easter.
I listened to an audio by a famous Indian/American who that did the accents so well, Midnight Children that is. I also loved his Quicchotte, and that’s all I have read. I will look into this title as well.
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I’ve never read Rushdie. I was just today trying to decide where I should start. Is your favorite Midnight’s Children? Should I start there with one of his earliest works?
I’ve only read a few Rushdie’s Anne.
Victory City was the easiest one to read and the most exuberant in style. I do love Midnight’s Children, but I read it in 1998, so it’s a memory I love, not specific details. I would like to read it again one day though. I’ve also heard very good things about The Enchantress of Florence (which is why it is on my TBR).
I didn’t get on with The Golden House or Quichotte at all.
His children’s stories would also be a good place to start – Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life – as they are really intended for readers of all ages. They are on my TBR too 🙂
Firstly I loved the BTS of the review process. Just lovely. Secondly I have been on the fence about this book. I have a complicated relationship with Rushdie; loving some like Enchantress of Florence and DNFing others like the Moor’s Last Sigh. But I love everything about Vijaynagar and the plot seems to be richly layered. So you have convinced me to read it. ☺️
I’d love to hear about your complicated relationship with Rushdie one day!
And I am now fascinated by Vijaynagar too – can you recommend any more books set in or about this empire? Thanks for popping by xo
Hope you are feeling better. Thank you for the review of Rushdie’s book. A must read I think. I agree about empires which come and go. If we look at history the empires and super powers have changed with the times. They seem to come and go. Maybe we are in a transition even now?
I suspect the current transitioning of power is what Rushdie had in mind. At least I certainly did as I was reading his book!