Salman Rushdie has a new book, and a message: 'Words are the only victors'

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Salman Rushdie has a new book, and a message: 'Words are the only victors'
The author Salman Rushdie in New York, Aug. 31, 2015. Nearly six months after he was brutally attacked, Rushdie is recovering and releasing a new novel, with the literary world rallying to his side. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris

NEW YORK, NY.- In “Victory City,” a new novel by Salman Rushdie, a gifted storyteller and poet creates a new civilization through the sheer power of her imagination. Blessed by a goddess, she lives nearly 240 years, long enough to witness the rise and fall of her empire in southern India, but her lasting legacy is an epic poem.

“All that remains is this city of words,” the poet, Pampa Kampana, writes at the end of her epic, which she buries in a pot as a message for future generations. “Words are the only victors.”

Framed as the text of a rediscovered medieval Sanskrit epic, “Victory City” is about mythmaking, storytelling and the enduring power of language. It is also a triumphant return to the literary stage for Rushdie, who has been withdrawn from public life for months, recovering from a brutal stabbing while onstage during a cultural event in New York last year.

The attack on Rushdie shook the literary world. For decades, Rushdie has been revered not only as a novelist, but as a free speech icon who faced death threats over his novel “The Satanic Verses,” yet continued to write and speak out against intolerance. After he was attacked last summer, fellow writers and cultural figures expressed outrage and gathered for vigils in his honor, sharing personal stories about him and reading passages from his novels.

Now, with the release of “Victory City,” writers are again rallying around Rushdie to champion his work. Many see it as a moment to celebrate Rushdie’s exuberant and playful imagination, to turn attention back to his fiction and to savor the fact that Rushdie is here to witness the reception of his novel. Some say the book’s overarching message — that stories will outlast political clashes, wars, the collapse of empires and civilizations — has taken on a heightened resonance in light of what Rushdie has endured.

“He is saying something quite profound in ‘Victory City,’” said novelist Colum McCann, a friend of Rushdie’s. “He’s saying, ‘You will never take the fundamental act of storytelling away from people.’ In the face of danger, even in the face of death, he manages to say that storytelling is one currency we all have.”

Rushdie delivered “Victory City” to his publisher, Random House, in December 2021, and Random House announced the project in the summer of 2022, not long before Rushdie was attacked. During his recovery, he has been eagerly anticipating the responses to the novel, McCann said. When McCann emailed Rushdie and asked for Rushdie’s permission to read passages of “Victory City” at an event held in December at the Center for Fiction, Rushdie was thrilled, McCann said.

“There’s a sort of fierceness of spirit that was there,” McCann said, a sense from Rushdie that “‘I will use this mighty weapon of language, and it is stronger than anything you can throw at me.’”

Rushdie was not available to comment, his publisher said. Friends and fellow writers report that his recovery is progressing; he keeps in touch, has started to plan new writing projects, and is as funny and quick-witted as ever.

“He’s extraordinarily resilient,” said novelist Hari Kunzru, who said he visited Rushdie recently and was heartened to find him in good spirits and talking about his work. “He’s still the Salman he was. He’s lost his eye and is still recovering from some of the other injuries, but this has not ended him.”

Kunzru said he hoped “Victory City” would shift attention back to Rushdie’s fiction and serve as a reminder that he is first and foremost a novelist, more than a free speech advocate or a victim of a malicious assault.

“This is a joyful oversized romp of a book, an extravagant book, showing him expressing his full capabilities and using all his creative power,” he said. “That should remind us that he’s a novelist and a storyteller more than a political symbol.”

Rushdie has long towered as one of the world’s most celebrated writers. He’d published 14 previous novels, often fantastical works that blend history and politics with elements of magical realism. Born in Mumbai (then Bombay), India, in 1947, he published his first novel, “Grimus,” a science fiction tale that he has called “justly obscure,” in 1975. In 1981, he published “Midnight’s Children,” a magical realist fable set in India just after Partition, which won the Booker Prize and launched his career.

Seven years later, his life was upended when he released “The Satanic Verses,” a novel that included a fictionalized portrayal of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, with depictions that some Muslims considered blasphemous. Shortly after, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a statement calling for Rushdie’s death, putting a $2.5 million bounty on his head and urging Muslims to target him. Rushdie went into hiding for nearly a decade, an ordeal he recounts in his memoir, “Joseph Anton.”

After the fatwa was rescinded in 1998, Rushdie seemed to relish his renewed freedom, and expressed gratitude to those who had stood by him and defended his right to publish. He moved to New York and became a vibrant fixture in the city’s literary and cultural life, a mentor to younger writers and a lively drinking and dining companion.

The reprieve came to an abrupt end in August, when Rushdie was attacked at the Chautauqua Institution, a summer arts community about 75 miles from Buffalo, New York, where he was to give a speech about how the United States had become a safe harbor for exiled writers. As the event was about to begin, a 24-year-old man from New Jersey rushed the stage, according to prosecutors, and stabbed Rushdie in the face and the abdomen before members of the audience pulled him away. The assailant, Hadi Matar, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree attempted murder and assault with a weapon.

Shortly after the attack, a group of acclaimed writers — among them Paul Auster, Gay Talese, Kiran Desai and A.M. Homes — gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library in Manhattan to read his work, including a portion of “Victory City.”

“They failed to silence him,” said Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, one of the organizations that sponsored the event. “The publishing of this book is a very powerful demonstration of that.”

“Victory City” builds on many of the themes that have long preoccupied Rushdie — the power of myths and legend to shape history, the conflict between the forces of multiculturalism and pluralism versus fundamentalism and intolerance. In some ways, it’s a shift back to Rushdie’s earlier works — richly imagined, magical realist narratives set in India — and marks a return to his literary roots after his last two novels, both satires that skewer contemporary American politics and culture.

In “Victory City,” Rushdie drew in part on the historical rise and collapse of the Vijayanagar Empire, which was founded in the 14th century by two brothers from a cow-herding tribe, a detail that Rushdie adopts in the novel. In his acknowledgments, Rushdie cites more than a dozen books that he drew on in his research, including scholarly texts about the Vijayanagar empire, and works about medieval Indian culture, politics and civilization.

In Rushdie’s vision, the city of Vijayanagar — the name means Victory City — is a place of magic and miracles that owes its existence to its creator, the poet Kampana, who blesses seeds and gives them to the cowherd brothers. If they planted them in a particular spot, she told them, a city would rise instantly from the ground. When her prophecy comes true, she breathes life into the city by whispering stories into people’s ears, imbuing the new place with history. Kampana envisions a society founded on the principles of religious tolerance and equality among the sexes, but is driven into exile, and eventually sees her empire conquered.

Early reviews of the novel have been largely admiring. Kirkus praised it as “a grand entertainment, in a tale with many strands, by an ascended master of modern legends.” A critic writing in The Times of London called it “one of Rushdie’s most joyful” books, noting that “the sheer pleasure he took in writing it bounces off the page.” A review by The New York Times is upcoming.

Erica Wagner, an author and critic who moderated an event in Rushdie’s honor that will air Feb. 9 to mark the publication of the book, said the novel is “a testament to the power of storytelling and the power of words and narrative, for good and ill.”

Some of Rushdie’s friends lamented that Rushdie — who is famously gregarious and extroverted and relishes the limelight — has been forced into isolation at what should be a celebratory moment.

Margaret Atwood, who took part in the panel about “Victory City” along with Wagner and author Neil Gaiman, said she felt an obligation to speak about Rushdie’s latest work, given that he was not in a position to appear publicly himself.

“You have to, as it were, foil the attempt to shut him down,” Atwood said.

“He’s been through so much, being in hiding for all those years, feeling under threat of death,” she added. “He is, above all, a storyteller.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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