Salman Rushdie's 'Victory City' is a triumph, independent of the Chautauqua attack
Weeks before Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage at the Chautauqua Festival on Aug. 12, 2022, he finished and submitted the final edits for his novel, Victory City. Inspired by the real-life history of Vijayanagar, a once flourishing medieval Hindu Kingdom in South India, Rushdie set out to re-imagine its collapse as a feminist fable about the lust for power and the power of stories.
Victory City has already been hailed a masterpiece by critics in the United States, Britain and India. Given what Rushdie endured last August, there is also air of commemoration for the writer's 15th novel with a virtual launch to be hosted by Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman.
Rushdie made his first public remarks this week in an extended interview with The New Yorker magazine's David Remnick, calling the attempt on his life a "colossal attack" that has left him with nightmares and lifelong physical injuries. As Rushdie tells Remnick in the piece entitled "The Defiance of Salman Rushdie," he has lost vision in his right eye and has nerve damage in one of his hands that still makes it challenging to type.
His attacker was a 24-year old named Hadi Matar who stabbed the writer more than a dozen times in front of a live audience. Matar was arrested on site and his trial is scheduled to begin late this year.
It had been more than 30 years since the Iranian regime issued a death sentence against Rushdie for blaspheming Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. The attack was a tragic revival of an episode that had seemed resigned to the past. For the last several years, Rushdie had been living a relatively open life as a literary figure in the United States and although he will not be making more public appearances to promote Victory City, he says he's grateful to have the focus shifted back to his words.
After the attack, several of his novels returned to the bestseller lists and many prominent writers from across the world held public readings of his work in solidarity, including Booker Prize winning novelist Kiran Desai.
"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," Desai says. "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."
Victory City invites readers to reconvene with Rushdie, the humorist, artist and spinner of grand yarns. It recounts the story of a sorceress and poet named Pampa Kampana, who dreams a whole civilization into existence from magic seeds. Through divine intervention, Pampa lives for more than two centuries, witnessing the city's many victories and defeats. She writes it all down and seals the story in a clay pot for future generations.
Kiran Desai says the new novel feels like a love letter to Rushdie's devoted tribe of fellow readers and writers: "It's a distillation of wisdom. A belief that beautiful words and stories will remain in our memories and whisper through the dream of subsequent generations."
In an essay that opened his last collection of non-fiction writing, Languages of Truth, Rushdie explained that his literary adaptations of mythological tales are a way to tackle urgent contemporary questions while keeping the sheer pleasure of reading and storytelling at the forefront.
Amid dazzling battles, court intrigue and sultry romances, Victory City is Rushdie's history of Vijayanagar, a medieval Hindu Empire that fell to Muslim armies. Today the site has become a symbol of Hindu, Muslim enmity and a part of a revisionist rewriting of India's past by the country's ruling Hindu nationalist government.
"History is far more complicated than the way it is being presented [in India] today," Kiran Desai says. "The nationalist's view of history is different from the novelist's view of history."
Rushdie is an avowed secularist who has always celebrated India's multiplicity. He is also a trained historian. In his re-telling of Vijayanagar through the words of the goddess Pampa, the city is undone by men's lust for power from all faiths.
The writer and journalist Aatish Taseer who has written extensively about the rise of Hindu nationalism says Rushdie's historical novels are not recreations for mere literary entertainment. Whether it's Muslim Spain in The Moor's Last Sigh or Vijayanagar in Victory City, "... he finds places where there is historical controversy, historical fractures, and moments in ... the past of a country that won't go away and that continue to send echoes into the present."
After Taseer wrote a scathing cover story for TIME magazine about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian government retaliated by stripping him of his Overseas Indian Citizenship card. He says Rushdie was the first person he appealed to for support. "I see him as a touchstone. Whenever free speech is threatened, Salman Rushdie is there to defend it."
Taseer says life bleeds into fiction for many writers but with Rushdie, "there's this diptych of the life of Salman Rushdie and a body of work so informed by his life." Rushdie's close friend, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta, says it is certainly possible to read the latest novel through the prism of the attack but it would be a disservice to Rushdie's magic.
"Of course I kept on feeling this is uncanny and this is ironic, but never did I feel it has gained some kind of dark power because of the attack," Mehta says. "The novel was as powerful as it ever was because it was brilliant."
In one of the most poignant scenes in Victory City, the poet and narrator Pampa Kampana is blinded by an angry rival. As the world she imagined into existence collapses around her, she continues the task of writing her story: "All that remains is this city of words. Words are the only victors."
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