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Victory City


Victory City

“Words are the only victors.” Meaningful words indeed, from Salman Rushdie, whose words have inspired more animosity and violence towards him than any other modern writer. Seven months after being attacked and grievously wounded by a knife-wielding fanatic, he proves it with the release of this rollicking, enchanting novel.

It begins with the remarkable Pampa Kampana, a nine-year-old girl whose long-widowed mother abandons her to join a funeral pyre for the widows of recently killed warriors. Horrified and desolate, Pampa is visited by a goddess who grants her extraordinary powers, and she vows to use them to ensure that no woman ever again follows her mother’s footsteps.

"...[a] rollicking, enchanting novel.... Rushdie’s tale is entertaining, funny and caustic, with ample room for wit and pointed political commentary..."

In the meantime, Pampa is an orphaned girl in a patriarchy, who ends up in the care of an ascetic, cave-dwelling monk as she grows into a beautiful but strange young woman. Her reputation draws two itinerant goatherds and former soldiers, brothers named Hukka and Bukka, to pay her a visit with a gift of seeds. Pampa instructs them to plant the seeds, which will become a glorious kingdom. Their skepticism lasts until the next day, when a city emerges, complete with walls, a temple, grand buildings and humans in whose ears Pampa whispers memories, family ties and professions. But in this new city, women as well as men are blacksmiths and warriors, teachers and magistrates.

Pampa is aware that she will live for 247 years. Over the centuries she sees her creation thrive and wither, bloom and fade. She first marries Hukka, the elder brother, although she reserves the right to keep her lover, a red-haired Portuguese horse trader named Domingo Nunes. The three daughters she bears during Hukka’s reign are red-haired, independent and strong. When Hukka dies, she marries Bukka (for love) and has three sons by him, but they are impetuous and spoiled. Domingo has died by then, and Pampa has long since realized the disadvantages of never growing old: “It’s hard for me to love anyone with my whole heart, because I know that they are going to die.”

Thus begins the kingdom of Bisnaga, and Pampa’s long and varied life. Rushdie’s tale is entertaining, funny and caustic, with ample room for wit and pointed political commentary: “There are sad sacks and lonelyhearts made sadder-sackier and lonely-heartier by all the portraits of other people’s joy.” The liberal society that Pampa whispers into being, with its religious and sexual freedom and support for the arts, is overthrown by prudish schemers who whip up a backlash against the queen when she elevates her daughters as heirs to the throne and sends her sons away. Pampa must eventually flee.

As the fortunes and rulers of Bisnaga rise and fall, one is reminded that the thirst for more power will always lead to a downfall --- as true in the 15th century as it is today. “I learned that the communities men build are based on the oppression of the many by the few, and I did not understand, I still do not understand, why the many accept this oppression,” says Pampa’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Zerelda Li, when she awakens Pampa from a long, thorn-encircled sleep in the enchanted forest that has sheltered her in exile.

There is one more golden age in Bisnaga when Pampa returns. Zerelda becomes the junior queen to the last good king, Krishnadevaraya, and Pampa is a revered regent --- for a while. In the end she is humbled, and she lives out her days finishing the grand epic poem of her life. She truly understands that the teller of the tale has the lasting, final power. “Words are the only victors.”

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on March 24, 2023

Victory City
by Salman Rushdie