tThe Vijayanagara Empire covered most of southern India in the 15th and 16th centuries. From one angle, it was a wellspring of the globalized modern world, becoming a haven for art and new ideas and an economic powerhouse trading with China and Venice. From another perspective, it was a jungle of intrigue, rocked by rival factions, foreign wars, and palace coups. Which is to say, it was it all: noble and vile, progressive and reactionary, the Hindu paradise of Svarga twinned with the treacherous landing of the King of Thrones. Only the most brilliant or reckless scholar would dream of treating his history in a single volume.
According to City of Victory, one such scholar was the demigod Pampa Campana, imperial mother, midwife, and general overseer, who documented the era in a narrative poem, then sealed it in a vessel and buried it in the ground. We contend that City of Victory is the shortened translation of the epic Pampa Jayaparajaya (a compound word meaning victory and defeat), retold in “simpler language” and stripped out of 24,000 verses. And if the result, while pleasing and pleasurable, seldom disturbs the realms of the Deity, then this is probably what happens when man rewrites the prose of the Deity.
This unassuming storyteller was never named, incidentally. But for the sake of convenience—and at the risk of introducing magic into the light of day—let’s just assume Salman Rushdie He himself, disguised as a deity and disguised as a writer, is like the youngest in a group of nesting dolls, or the mercurial maker of a conventional frame tale. “[I’m] “Humble author,” he tells us, the old con. “Neither scholar nor poet but just a spinner of yarn.” Humble or not, Rushdie’s sumptuous and hilarious 15th takes him firmly back to Indian soil, cooking up an alternative Mahabharata spinning an elaborate foundational myth from the bones of history. He’s having fun. Project and his sense of fun is contagious.
As for Pampa Campana, she is both a mediator and a participant, blessed (she thinks she is cursed) with an extended lifespan roughly corresponding to that of the empire itself (1336-1565). Pampa grows a great city, Bisnaga, from a handful of beans and okra seeds. She breathes life into her inhabitants, choosing a shepherd as her king, and a Portuguese merchant as her lover. But, in true mythical fashion, the demigod’s power is spotty. She is variously strong and weak as the story demands, often at the mercy of the men she has placed on the throne. Sometimes worshiped, often chased. But because of her gender, she was denied the chance to become queen. The role, she admits, “I wanted more than anything.”
Every futuristic science fiction tale is inevitably concerned with what is now. The same certainly applies to historical fiction. In the context of City of Victory, Rushdie intermittently positions his invented past as a window into the present. There are protests recalling the current “white paper revolution” in China as well as a heroine pushing for gender equality and religious tolerance, a kingdom where women are “neither veiled nor hidden”. However, every time Bamba’s mission seemed to gain momentum, it faltered. We soon realize that Bisnaga is less a utopian project than a beach drawn by incoming and outgoing tides. Every action has a reaction. For every victory and defeat. The arc of Pampa’s history leans toward wreckage, despair, and realignment.
If that sounds fatalistic, tone is anything but. On the page, Rushdie’s fairy tale of the absurd feels positive, bordering on fun, and covers the ground with a fast, steady clip. Victory City folds historical figures into fictional clowns. It frames its supporting players in the literary medium shot, never giving us a close-up, until we know them by their actions and by their core traits (smart personality, aggressiveness). And as the years accumulate, even these numbers begin to echo and repeat. Thimma the Huge sears Thimma the most almost the same as Huge, while Ulupi Junior parents Ulupi is more junior. The Portuguese lover continues to take on new forms. “I’m tired of you coming back,” sighs the long-standing pampa, who is now more than 200 years old.
The goddess gets tired. Fortunately, the tale is still thriving. It should be noted that Rushdie completed Al-Nasr City a few months ago last August stage attack Set in New York State’s Chautauqua institution, so now that it reaches us like something newly discovered and bottle-free, the story of a world-building poet toiling to outwit her adversaries. Rushdie’s heroine is alive with the stakes but swept up in the story, as if she believes that by spinning a tale she might avoid evil, or at least leave something good and lasting in her wake. Bamba accepts that all empires will eventually crumble to dust. She concludes, “Words are the only victors,” and stories, at their best, cheat death and live on.