Salman Rushdie’s ‘Victory City’ spotlights the power of free expression
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Monday 13 February 2023 By Matt d’Ancona
In Salman Rushdie’s magnificent new novel, the narrator describes himself as ‘neither a scholar nor a poet, but merely a spinner of yarns’. Yet the ‘yarn’ that he has to spin is – among much else – a tale about the power of fiction, stories and the uninhibited imagination.
Framed as a retelling of an ‘immense narrative poem’, the Jayaparajaya, written in Sanskrit, and supposedly buried by the ‘the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampana’ on the last day of her life when she was aged 247, Victory City (Jonathan Cape) – Rushdie’s 15th novel – recounts the mythical history of the Bisnaga empire, which arises magically from the earth of 14th century India as the fruit of scattered magical seeds.
Its citizens, also conjured into existence, are given selves and backstories by the ‘whispering’ of Pampa Kampana.
On 12 August, the novelist was stabbed at least 10 times by an assailant who rushed the stage at a speaking event in Chautauqua, New York. Hospitalised by his terrible injuries for six weeks, he was left partially blinded and barely able to use his left hand. Thirty-three years after he was sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini for the alleged blasphemy of The Satanic Verses, this barbarous attempt on his life was a terrible reminder that fanaticism never sleeps.
Victory City confronts the ever-present threat of puritanism and doctrinal limitations upon personal liberty. Bisnaga is a city of burgeoning feminist equality – its women are lawyers, labourers, police officers and dentists – but is constantly menaced by patriarchal religiosity. The contemporary resonance with Modi’s Hindu nationalism scarcely needs to be spelt out. But the contest between two ways of living, two sets of ideas, is universal as well as specific. As the novel’s narrator explains: ‘The reality of poetry and the imagination follows its own rules’ – which is precisely why totalitarian and theocratic regimes invariably seek to control and subdue art.
As novels are increasingly constrained by ‘sensitivity readers’, trigger warnings and instructions to authors to ‘stay in their lane’, there is a splendid symmetry in the return of the indomitable Rushdie – who has paid such a heavy price for his fealty to fiction’s true covenant with the reader. Victory City is one of his very best novels. It is also a luminous, italicised, vibrant reminder of the possibilities of free expression and of the untrammelled imagination. In this instance, the medium is indeed the message.
‘Words are the only victors,’ writes Pampa Kampana. So too, by the very act of returning to his desk, is Rushdie. And so, if we have the sense to read what he writes and to embrace what it stands for, are we.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Women Talking (selected cinemas, 10 February)
Based on Miriam Toews’ novel of 2018 – which was in turn a literary response to a real-life series of sexual assaults on Mennonite women in Bolivia – Sarah Polley’s extraordinary movie traces the deliberations of eight female characters, as they decide what to do about the horrors that have been perpetrated by the men of their religious community.
The ensemble cast is quite something: Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, and Ben Whishaw. What a wonderful surprise it would be if Women Talking snapped up the Oscar® for Best Picture on 13 March. Don’t miss it.
Still Pictures: On Photography And Memory by Janet Malcolm
When Janet Malcolm died aged 86 in 2021 – the same year as Joan Didion – the world lost one of the truly great post-war long-form journalists.
Clocking in at a slender 155 pages, Still Pictures is not the detailed memoir one might have wished for (Malcolm had grave reservations about autobiography on principle). But these 26 brief essays, bookended by an introduction by her friend Ian Frazier and an afterword by her daughter Anne, use family photos as visual pegs for highly specific, micromanaged recollections – and offer a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood woman who was so formidably rigorous in her professional life
My 21st Century Blues by Raye
A storming debut album by the 25-year-old Rachel Keen, better known as RAYE. Her vocal power is remarkable from start to finish, as is her capacity to swing from rap to falsetto without breaking a sweat.
The mix of genres is a further strength: R&B, bluesy jazz, soul, electro, rave club sounds. There’s vulnerability, too, in tales of failed relationships, loneliness and self-medication – as on ‘Mary Jane’. And just to remind us: there’s ‘Escapism’, featuring 070 Shake, which gave Raye her first UK number-one single last month.
This is my last Creative Sensemaker – which will now be edited by the brilliant James Wilson.
My thanks to all of the newsletter’s readers, to my talented colleagues at Tortoise and to those who have sent in tips and showed how deeply they care, in difficult times, about the future of culture, art and performance.
Editor and Partner