Review: Salman Rushdie’s Victory City affirms the virtues of liberty, trade and tolerance in a mythological historical fantasy about the cycles of civilization

By Michael Grossberg

Salman Rushdie, the courageous author acclaimed worldwide for both his fiction and personal courage in affirming libertarian values from artistic freedom and freedom of speech/press to the right of dissent, has written a wise and haunting novel in Victory City.


Rushdie’s historical fantasy – a Best Novel nominee for the next Prometheus Award – makes a poignant and powerful case for liberty as a key ingredient in the constellation of value and virtues that support human flourishing and the never-to-be-taken-for-granted rise of civilization.

Rueful in its ideals, but also often cynical and realistic about human nature, Victory City fictionalizes and dramatizes the rise and fall of medieval-Indian empires – and with their fall, the mournful collapse of the emerging modern-liberal/libertarian order of  free international trade, peace, tolerance, sexual equality/diversity and religious liberty.

Weaving mythological and supernatural elements into his well-researched tapestry of 1500s-1600s Indian and Asian history, Rushdie employs his modernist style of self-awareness and narrative ambiguity to explore the impermanence of peace and freedom and celebrate the temporary Renaissance-style eras that are the glorious fruits of liberty.

Gradually, I came to understand Rushdie’s novel as a libertarian tragedy – mostly subtle and implicit, but occasionally explicit in its language and values – about the difficulty of sustaining civilization and liberty amid recurring cycles of war and peace, love and hate, progress and reaction, tolerance and witch hunts, given the baser and perennial aspects of human nature, especially the blind lust for power.

Salman Rushdie (Creative Commons license)

How fascinating to read about a fictional medieval-India empire founded by Pampa Kampala, a young girl who becomes a long-lived goddess.

She founds – actually, conjures up magically – the people and city of Bisnaga (the “Victory City” of the title) based on her intuitive appreciation for  the classical-liberal principles of freedom, pluralism, sexual equality, tolerance, peace and the rule of law. (Only at the end of the book, reading the post-script and list of history books Rushdie acknowledges researching, did I realize that some of the novel’s kings and characters are actually drawn from the history and politics of Asia in the 1500s and 1600s.)

Through Rushdie’s saga fictionalizing many aspects of medieval and India history with his distinctive style of magical realism, readers of all religions, ideologies and beliefs can’t help but learn about the deep and intrinsic connections among liberty, equal rights, peace, trade, women’s rights, and respect for different religious beliefs.

As the story cumulatively makes clear, though never in a dogmatic way, such crucial aspects of the modern and cosmopolitan liberal/libertarian order have emerged in fits and starts, yet remain perennially under threat from human irrationality, stupidity, venality and power-lust.

Such a pessimistic view of history may be hard to reconcile with many libertarians’ fondest hopes about achieving full freedom in the 21st century, but Rushdie’s bittersweet and picaresque saga offers powerful lessons for our troubled and darkening time.

Steeped in a fanciful embroiderment of India’s checkered past, Victory City elegantly fuses classic and archetypal fables with Rushdie’s often-amusing self-awareness of language and narrative in weaving his tale.

Most admirably, throughout his novel Rushdie consistently shows that freedom is vastly preferable to tyranny – yet always remains in danger of being undermined, taken for granted or actively destroyed by foolish and egotistical rulers – an all-too faithful reflection of world history.

Pampa Kampana, a young woman who attains her real but limited powers amidst suffering, does what she can to create and nurture a truly free and modern world, with equal rights for women, sexual freedom (including for gays and lesbians), freedom of speech and a rich culture based on international free trade that paves the way for greater education and knowledge.

Although Rushdie is too wise to deny that nothing lasts forever, he powerfully and sympathetically shows again and again the manifold fruits of freedom during the best eras of the “Victory City” that Pampa Kampana returns to nurture and lead when and as she can, given the limits of politics and human folly

Enjoyable and surprising to read in its scope and variety of stories and characters but never dogmatic or ideological, Victory City implicitly explores recurring questions about society, government, politics and human nature. Several are close to our libertarian hearts:

Why does tyranny arise so often?

Why do civilizations rise and fall?

What are the factors in social collapse?

Why do so many people get resigned to tyranny and war?

Why does tyranny recur even after people come to appreciate eras imbued with the benefits of liberty, civility, tolerance and peace?

Well into the novel, Rushdie explicitly references the positive value of liberty, as a sort of counterweight to the grim realities of power, tyranny, war, slavery and the manifold other abuses systematically commitment by governments throughout history:

“The transformation wrought by Pampa Kampana stood revealed in all its marvelous force. This was the birth of the New Remonstrance, as it came to be known; no longer anti-art, against women, or hostile toward sexual diversity, but embracing poetry, liberty, women and joy.”

Rushdie describes his civilizing world in almost libertarian terms at its highest point of progress and culture: “Trading ships from Bisnaga were traveling everywhere and spreading the news of its wonders, and now foreign visitors – traders, diplomats, explorers – thronged its streets, applauding its beauty and comparing it favorably to Beijing and to Rome.

“Every man may come and go and live according to his own creed. Great equity and justice is observed to all, not only by the rulers, but by the people, one to another.”

At several different points, this picaresque novel underlines its drama and episodic history with occasional additional explicit references to liberty and its related constellation of values:

“It didn’t take long for the city to calm down. Bisnaga was no primitive civilization. In her early creative whispers Pampa Kampana had imbued its newborn citizens with a strong belief in the rule of law, and taught them to value the freedoms they would enjoy under the law’s umbrella…. (and)… the diversity of cultures, faiths, and races to be found in those streets.”

Yet, mostly, the lessons remain implicit in the stories and characters that Rushdie conjures so gracefully and yes, magically, from his own rich imagination.

Neither does Rushdie’s storytelling leave in doubt the coercive and brutal nature of most government:

When the three younger Sangama brothers, who “had been earning a dishonest living for some time as highway robbers and cattle thieves,” found that their criminal business was becoming even more dangerous after ruthless Tamil gangs moved into the area…,” they feared for their lives and started looking for something “less life-threatening” to do…

“Take us to our brothers at once,” Chukka Sangama said in his most commanding tones.

“We need to explain to them why there is no difference between thieves and kings.”

Indeed.

As I read Victory City, I found similarities to past Prometheus winners – most notably, Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, which focuses on the emergence of the modern liberal/libertarian order in the West, just as Rushdie focuses on it in the Asian East).

Yet, in some ways, I also noticed parallels with  Terry Pratchett’s Nightwatch and other Discworld stories, which weave in often-humorous insights and parallels drawn from the actual history of economic and social progress.

Yet, Rushdie is never as funny as Pratchett, since his humor is more rueful and world-weary and cynical, while his consistent appreciation for true classical liberalism – so close to modern libertarianism in its values and roots – seems tempered by the more fatalistic rhythms of the East.)

While respecting his story and allowing his characters to speak for themselves, Rushdie overall makes clear where his preferences lie: the best civilizations (or perhaps, more realistically, our semi-barbaric attempts so far at building civilizations within recorded history) tend to be freer, more peaceful and more tolerant and become so when rulers or the ruling class restrain the perennial temptations we all face as human beings to abuse power.

I must admit I’d never read Rushdie before (a sad oversight, in retrospect), so Victory City was a pleasant surprise, with wonderful storytelling, believable and fresh characters and many unfolding riches and manifold moments of insight, wit and imagination to savor.

I’m now eager to read more of Rushdie’s internationally acclaimed works.

But I also feel impelled to urge other LFS members to give this somewhat unusual Best Novel nominee a chance – since many of us are accustomed to reading mostly sci-fi, but sometimes give short shrift to fantasy.

Beyond its libertarian themes favoring peace, free trade, human rights, sexual equality and tolerance as alternatives to empire and war, Victory City certainly fits the genre focus of our award as a historical fantasy framed by mythological and supernatural dimensions.

Yet, Rushdie’s novel (published by Random House) is very different in tone, flavor and structure from most other speculative fiction that LFS members and other sf/fantasy fans typically read. So it may take a while to get used to its epic and episodic focus and unusual style melding traditionalist myth-making and modernist, self-aware ambiguity and humor.

Overall, Victory City offers a richly woven and poignant allegory about the perennial struggle to preserve the liberties and related values that make it  possible to enhance human flourishing and sustain civilization itself.

Note: Victory City is one of 17 2023 novels nominated for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel. The slate of finalists will be announced by mid-April, so stay posted to the Prometheus Blog.

* Check out the full list of this year’s 17 Best Novel nominees and read the Prometheus Blog’s recent five-part series offering a guide to each nominee with capsule descriptions. Here are the links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of the guide to the nominees for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

* Libertarian Futurist Society members, Prometheus-nominated authors and other libertarian sf/fantasy fans are welcome to submit reviews of relevant literature to the Prometheus Awards. Contact Michael Grossberg, one of the Prometheus Blog editors, at bestnovel@lfs.org

 

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant elements of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch  videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, end slavery, reduce the threat of war, repeal or constrain other abuses of coercive power and achieve universal liberty, respect for human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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