If there were ever a Spectator competition for the best pastiche of the opening words of a Salman Rushdie novel, a pretty good entry might be: ‘On the last day of her life, when she was two hundred and forty-seven years old, the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampana completed her immense narrative poem about Bisnaga.’ By coincidence, these are also the opening words of Victory City, a book Rushdie finished not long before last summer’s stabbing.
And, as it turns out, that first sentence sets the scene for much of what follows – because the novel takes its place alongside the likes of John Updike’s Villages (about adultery in the American suburbs), Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (a Jewish intellectual negotiates the modern world) and Martin Amis’s The Inside Story (Philip Larkin, his dad, foxy 1970s ball-breakers, etc) as one of those late works whose appeal is tinged with a kind of nostalgia. Objectively viewed, they may not add much that’s new to their author’s oeuvre. On the other hand, there’s something undeniably stirring about seeing these writers perform a selection of their greatest hits with such undiminished commitment.
In Rushdie’s case, this means that after a few novels based mainly in contemporary America, the old boy returns to India for a full-throated mix of history and magic realism, served with lashings of wildly imaginative, slightly bonkers storytelling.
For those a little rusty on their 14th-century Indian history, Bisnaga, where the book is set, was once one of the world’s grandest cities, with an empire to match. Yet, while Rushdie has clearly swotted up on this, it seems a safe bet that the place didn’t suddenly spring into existence, as it does here, when a goddess-possessed 18-year-old girl told two cowherds to scatter seeds on the ground.
The girl in question is Pampa Kampana who, with 229 years still to go, has already had an eventful life.