Björn Wiman: Rushdie’s novel art sparkles
“City of Victory”
Trans. Amanda Svensson
Albert Bonnier’s publisher, 356 pages.
Sometime in late April 2023, a child was born. It is impossible to determine exactly when the birth took place, but one can imagine the newborn as very special – more specifically, the child who made India overtake China as the world’s most populous nation and who today is one of the country’s estimated 1,425,775 850 inhabitants.
The symbol-laden birth could very well have been taken from a novel by Salman Rushdie. His magnificent breakthrough novel “Midnight’s Children” took its starting point from the very children who were born at midnight on August 15, 1947, at the exact time when India became an independent nation, and who were all endowed with magical gifts.
Also in Rushdie’s new novel “Segerstaden” – written before the attack on the author in the USA last summer – a girl is born who, with her wonderful abilities, will intertwine myth, fairy tale and reality, but now in India’s 14th century. When she is nine years old, she sees her mother being burned alive at the stake and in connection with this receives both eternal life and the ability to create a city out of nothing that will grow into an empire, Bisnaga.
The girl’s name is Pampa Kampana and “Segerstaden” is her creation story about this fictional kingdom. It is inspired by the mighty Vijaynagara empire on the South Indian plateau, which in the novel is made the playground of so much magical realism that mythical places like Xanadu and Samarkand appear as stinking village caves.
In Bisnaga, the scent of perfumed sandalwood, cloves, cumin and cinnamon sticks surrounds the city’s golden walls and grandiose palaces, where periods of glorious military success and cultural flourishing succeed each other. Chinese martial arts trainers, Portuguese horse traders and Venetian adventurers bring to mind both Italo Calvino’s invisible cities and George R R Martin’s violent power play for the throne.
You can get more boring of course have in the reading chair (or wherever you are). “Segerstaden” is faithful to Salman Rushdie’s basic aesthetic and ethical premise that fiction can be as powerful as real history and something as unusual as a novel that is propelled forward by an uninterrupted good mood – well taken care of in Amanda Svensson’s Swedish translation, which harbors both the cheerful tone and the abrupt stylistic breaks in Rushdie’s narrative art.
It thus becomes the fate of the miracle worker Pampa Kampana to follow the city she so miraculously created and from time to time through the centuries intervene in its governance. Not least, she pushes the ground-breaking and subversive idea of female succession to the throne; in Bisnaga, women should not be seen as second-class citizens, hidden behind veils, but highly educated and cultured.
During this frenzy fantastic facade thus also emerges one of Salman Rushdie’s main literary themes: the anger at Puritan fanaticism’s ability to destroy everything that comes in its way. Without hitting one’s political claws too hard in this funny novel, one can state that “Segerstaden” shows the fragility of the tolerant social order – also with some witty parallels to the bigoted culture wars of our time; in 15th-century India, you didn’t need men’s art or drag queens in libraries to divide and poison the conversational climate of society.
It is a cruel irony that Pampa Kampana ends his days in a way that almost prophetically brings to mind the injuries inflicted on Salman Rushdie last year by a person who had at most read a few pages of his novels.
“Victory City” thus becomes a good-natured statement against fundamentalism, anticipating its life-threatening consequences. Rushdie’s text shines and sparkles as he tells how poetry, equality, religious freedom, social equality and tolerance make the empire flourish, while everything dies and withers at the hands of powerful, moronic and intolerant rulers.
It belongs to it the curses of the god-given narrator that he sometimes inevitably falls victim to his own worst enemy (his own verbosity) and that the story is therefore characterized by certain dramaturgical transport stretches before it reaches the inevitable end, where only the written word and the story live on.
In the end, “Segerstaden” therefore shows how real novel art works. It is a liberation to read something that is so far away in time and space from us here and now – and which precisely because of that illuminates our sad reality all the better.
Read more texts and reviews by Björn Wimanincluding the review of Karl Ove Knausgård’s novel “The Third Reich”. Also subscribe to the newsletter Culture week with Björn Wiman which arrives in your mailbox every Thursday.
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