Magical Realism: A Modern Epic: "Victory City" by Salman Rushdie

Mass, self-chosen death by fire: The new novel by Indian-born British-American writer Salman Rushdie, "Victory City" begins with a scene that is almost unbearable.

Magical Realism: A Modern Epic: "Victory City" by Salman Rushdie

Mass, self-chosen death by fire: The new novel by Indian-born British-American writer Salman Rushdie, "Victory City" begins with a scene that is almost unbearable.

All the female members of a small kingdom in 14th-century southern India go to the fire after the death of their husbands in a losing battle. The only one left is nine-year-old Pampa Kampana, who decides not to follow her mother into the flames. The cruel practice of widow burning and the criticism of the image of women in a conservative Hindu society behind it flash up again and again in Rushdie's novel, which will be available in German bookstores from Thursday (April 20).

The power of imagination

Rushdie's heroine undergoes a transformation through the traumatic experience that makes her the medium of a goddess and the founder and chronicler of an entire civilization. With the help of her divine gifts, Pampa Kampana creates the city of Bisnaga (Victory City) and its people through the power of her imagination alone and accompanies the rise and fall of the metropolis through the centuries thanks to an extraordinary longevity of 247 years.

"Victory City" is the chronicle of a fictional empire that develops around this city. The 75-year-old Rushdie remains true to his style of magical realism as well as humor and a ruthless directness. He weaves a dense narrative of sex, power struggles and conspiracies inspired by the great epics of mankind. But pathos is completely foreign to him. His characters curse, hesitate and doubt.

Intelligence and stupidity remain constant

It's a modern epic that addresses some of humanity's great questions: who are we? Do we have a free will? why do we have to die He doesn't have a concrete answer for everything. For Rushdie's heroine Pampa Kampana, reaching a biblical age becomes a curse: she must gradually bury all the people she loves, including her own children, one by one. Among her insights from a life spanning several centuries is "that human intelligence and stupidity, indeed the best and worst of human nature, are the great constants in a changing world".

Rushdie was inspired by the history of the southern Indian Hindu empire of Vijayanagar with the capital of the same name, whose ruins now form the Unesco World Heritage Site of Hampi. He sticks closely to the historical model in many details. Yet his Bisnaga seems to be a metaphor for many empires and nations throughout human history - not least those of the present.

With his tale of the wondrous creation of Bisnaga, Rushdie hints, not very covertly, that the narratives that today's nations have entwined around their creation correspond at times more or less with historical reality. He unmasks them as an exercise in the formation of a common identity.

In addition to attacks from outside, the empire is being shaken by an endless power struggle between religious zealots and liberal forces within, in which sometimes one side, sometimes the other, gains the upper hand. Sometimes it gives the impression that Rushdie is playing on the political situation in the USA, where he now lives. Partly one feels reminded of the subjugation of India by the British colonial masters, who in the form of pink monkeys try to exploit the treasures of an enchanted forest.

The consequences of the division of the British colony of India into Muslim Pakistan and India, which is officially secular but increasingly shaped by radical Hinduism, and the subsequent rivalry between the two states seem to be heard again and again.

"I was extremely lucky"

Victory City is Rushdie's first novel to appear since the writer's attack last year. Rushdie was attacked with a knife and seriously injured during a lecture in the United States. He has been blind in one eye ever since. "I was extremely lucky. If the attacker had hit me anywhere else on the body, my story would have ended. I'm glad he didn't hit those spots. And then the body seems to have an amazing ability to heal," he said "Time" recently in an interview.

He described the fact that he had completed "Victory City" before the assassination as "good timing". Otherwise, he said, he might have slipped. The attack came more than 30 years after Iran's former revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for the assassination of Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. But Rushdie wouldn't be Rushdie if he didn't use the assassination as an opportunity to write a new book, which he's currently writing.

Salman Rushdie, Victory City, publication date April 20, Penguin Verlag, 414 pages, 26,000 euros, ISBN 978-3-328-60294-1