But the germs of impatience had spread far and wide and lingered longer than anyone expected.
In August, as he prepared to speak at the Chautauqua Center about the importance of providing a safe haven for exiled writers, Rushdie was attacked by a knife-wielding man. Before the attacker could be stopped, Rushdie was stabbed 10 times. He survived, but reportedly lost the sight in one eye and the use of one hand.
Salman Rushdie and the death of safe spaces
That terrible event led to some good temporary announcements about the sanctity of freedom of speech. But writers around the world continue to be harassed, imprisoned and even killed for their work. And in the United States, religious extremists and their most critical political allies have found that banning books, criticizing authors, and threatening librarians remain effective tactics to collect money and spread their lies.
What a joy, then, at this critical time to be given a magical new book by Rushdie himself. Although “Victory City” was completed before the Chautauqua attack, it is impossible to read parts of this great dream as an allegory of the writer’s battles against hatred and ignorance. Indeed, given the physical and emotional sacrifices he made, some of the interactions between this story and his life are almost too painful to bear.
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In a tongue-in-cheek introduction, Rushdie presents these pages not as his own creation but as a “completely abstracted” summary of a classic classical poem. He mentions that a Sanskrit inscription has recently been found on an earthen pot among the ruins of Vijayanagar. This immortal masterpiece, “Jayaparajaya,” is the work of a prophetess named Pampa Kampana who died in 1565 at the age of 247.
Some of those facts sound dubious; some at least are taken from a long time in history. Vijayanagar – “City of Victory” in Sanskrit – was once the capital of a large Hindu empire in southern India. The records suggest a prosperous, culturally tolerant capital with great wealth and luxurious facilities. But eventually the eternal city surrendered to the Muslim forces who destroyed it so completely that, to borrow Shelley’s words,
Of that vast, boundless and empty Wreck
One fine sand spreads far.
In the mid-1980s, UNESCO declared the ruins on the banks of the Tungabhadra a World Heritage Site. As that remedial project unfolds, Rushdie offers this same aspirational perspective. Showing himself to be a mere translator and generalist, he treads lightly, rarely intervening to notice some strange lacuna in the original text or to provide some editorial guidance. Otherwise, we run through the multi-national events of a once-ancient kingdom as if we were walking into an Indian version of “Game of Thrones.”
The story begins long before the rise and fall of the Vijayanagar empire in the smoldering remains of a “small, defeated empire.” In this shameful event, the remaining widows leave their castle, build a huge bonfire near the river and enter the fire.
Left behind – and distraught – is Pampa Kampana, the 9-year-old daughter of one of the women. Rushdie writes: But when he sees his mother’s roast meat falling away from the bones, he makes up his mind. He thinks: “He would not give up his body just to follow the dead to the world. He would refuse to die young and live, instead, to age impossibly, dishonorably.”
Impressed by her formidable power, the goddess begins to speak to this determined little girl. “You will fight to ensure that no other women are burned in this way,” the goddess announces, “and that men begin to consider women in new ways.” About ten years later, when two cowherds come asking for wisdom, he blesses a bag of vegetable seeds and tells the brothers to plant them where his mother died.
In such moments – and often in “Victory City” – Rushdie’s magical style produces miracles. An hour after the seeds were scattered, “the wind began to tremble,” he writes, and an impressive city emerged from the rocky terrain – from the palace to the Monkey Temple, restaurants covered market and noble residences, together. and thousands of people “who were born and raised entirely in the brown world, shaking the dust from their clothes, and crowding the streets.”
But they are more like zombies than Adam and Eve, and the new city has no meaning, no history. So, “to cure the multitude of the unreal,” Pampa turns to fiction. He whispers humanity and the past to every empty citizen of Vijayanagar. Rushdie writes: “Although the stories in their heads were myths, “myths could be as powerful as history, revealing themselves to new people, allowing them to understand their nature and the origins of those around them, and make them real.”
One can hear in this text, the philosophy of a man who spent nearly 50 years writing stories as powerful as history – from “Midnight’s Children,” which won the Booker Prize in 1981, to “The Satanic Verses, ” that erupted. protests around the world. “This was a riot of gossip: it wasn’t just fake, it was real.”
Pampa, a sympathetic and vulnerable heroine, imbues her town with great intelligence, deep learning and gender equality. She hopes to create a kind of feminist topia, “a place of laughter, joy and pleasure of frequent and varied sex.” But as some world creators have noted, the gift of free will is problematic. For more than two hundred years, he sees his empire grow and stumble. New rulers have arisen, some are wise, some are foolish, and a few are truly despicable. At certain times, Pampa takes positions of great political power and prominence; in others, he is ridiculed and exiled.
Despite its beautiful design, “Victory City” is still surprisingly simple. The broad quality that sometimes burdened Rushdie’s later stories has been replaced by light humor, subtle satire. The long story and the prophesied disaster at the end caused tension due to the political machinations that keep attacking the government.
In Pampa’s suffering, one force has proven most toxic to his hopes and the city’s survival: religious intolerance. Ms. Rushdie is well placed and very experienced in breaking down the basics of the spiritual purity of war. Despite Pampa’s best efforts, with each new generation, self-hatred, inadequacy and fear attract people to extreme cults. For a small but indelible part of the population, the knowledge that others may think something different or entertain themselves in a different way is intolerable. In the words of one court counselor, “There are sad sacks and lonely hearts that are getting sadder and lonelier because of all the pictures of other people’s happiness.” As Gulliver travels across the world, Pampa sails through time, finding each time new examples of the vanity and judgment of men.
But even though his power may be amazing, he will not do everything in his power to keep his city prosperous or, in the end, even to keep it in existence. He says to another king: “The supply of magic is endless. (Like Milton, Rushdie seems to know that all power ends great tension.) But Pampa can whisper, and she can be persuasive, and even after her enemies blind her, she able to write.
He says: “The miraculous and the everyday are two parts of the same thing. And that, incidentally, might be the best description of Rushdie’s work.
Ron Charles review books and write Club Journal for The Washington Post.
Random House. 336 pp. $30
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