Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Victory City, ends with a public blinding. It is horrifically ironic that the author himself lost an eye and barely escaped with his life in an assassination attempt while promoting the novel at a public lecture in New York (incredibly, the lecture was on how the U.S. is a safe haven for exiled writers). Rushdie has lived under threat of murder by Iranian leadership for more than three decades, and the attack underlined the dangers of religious intolerance - a major theme in Victory City.

The novel reads like an Indian fable; the latest incarnation of Rushdie’s fondness for magical realism. It tells a fictionalized account of the 14th-century South Indian Vijaynagara empire. Vijaynagara translates to “Victory City” in English and is renamed Bisnaga in the book. Today, the capital city of Hampi rests on top of the substantial ruins of the Vijaynagara empire. I visited Hampi right before the pandemic. It reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of Athens: miles of rubble in varying degrees of preservation that serve as gravestones for a dead civilization. But unlike ancient Greece, with its millennia-spanning cultural impact, the Vijaynagara empire is relatively obscure even within India. Rushdie’s stylized take on it makes for interesting reading. The story is told by an anonymous narrator - a “humble historian” - translating an epic Sanskrit poem written by the protagonist Pampa Kampana about the rise and fall of the Bisnaga empire. Many of the characters in the story are based on real people, including Pampa (inspired by 14th-century princess-poet Gangadevi). She stars as the main character in her tale. Her life is bound up in the life of the empire, and she lives for 247 years, directly responsible for its birth and present at its demise.

The perils of bigotry and the power of words, Rushdie’s favorite themes, recur throughout Victory City. The Bisnaga empire thrives when under secular and tolerant rule (a “feminist utopia”), and suffers when bound by strict dogma. The idea of the founding myth is dealt with several times. Kings and empires born and die and create origin stories along the way to legitimize their divine right to glory. The narrator points out that we don’t know if Pampa is being accurate in her recounting of events, but, also, that it doesn’t really matter: kings vanish eventually, their deeds largely immaterial in the court of history. All that remains are stories about them.

Rushdie is a superb writer, in the style of Nabokov or Woolf, and his prose is always clever and fluid. But the story itself felt meandering, and could easily have been shortened a fair bit without diluting its message or impact or charm. The Indian epic format is done pretty well: there’s even the classic exiled-to-magical-forest-for-years-before-claiming-throne trope.

Rushdie survived the assassination attempt, though it left him with life-altering injuries. He’s still going strong: he published yet another book last month that details the attack and his subsequent recovery. The man is non-stop.