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Creation in Salman Rushdie’s « Victory City » (2023)

Par Marie-Gaëlle Drouet : Étudiante en Master 2 - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Marion Coste le 13/05/2024

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[Fiche] This paper will consider how Salman Rushdie’s novel ((Victory City)) is eminently framed by multiple acts of creation involving questions of agency, artistry and resistance. In his fifteenth novel, Rushdie tells the epic story of the young orphan girl Pampa Kampana who is endowed with magical powers by a goddess and who subsequently creates the city of Bisnaga, literally meaning “Victory City” – a city supposedly modelled on the 14th century-Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, South India. Patterns of production and creativity will be identified so as to determine how things come into being in the novel, and how this connects to notions of composition, design and theatricality, thus widening the reflexion to a metatextual level.

Introduction

“[T]his would be her life, making beautiful things” (6). This quote taken from the novel’s opening chapter originally refers to the heroine Pampa Kampana’s interest in the “potter’s art” she has learnt with her mother as a girl and which she keeps practising later on (6). Creation is thus straightaway associated with the main protagonist and established as a key narrative element. The novel chronicles indeed the rise and fall of Bisnaga – the city created by the protagonist – by following Pampa Kampana’s 250 year-trajectory amidst a world of magic, court rivalries and power struggles. Part I, “Birth”, settles the mythological Indian background by focusing on the rise of Bisnaga as a kingdom defined by artistic development, military expeditions and multiple love affairs. Part II entitled “Exile” is framed by patterns of leaving and coming back to Bisnaga as the action is relocated to the Enchanted Forests from time to time while various dynasties follow one another in Bisnaga. Part III, “Glory”, is both imbued with resurgences from the past and marked by the beginning of a “new age” for Bisnaga as the kingdom wavers between political renewal and impending crisis (201). Part IV, “Fall”, finally shows how the city comes to its end, irreparably weakened by political turmoil and military struggles.  

The recurring pattern of invention and production indicates how central to the novel the creative act is. “Creation” may be defined as “the action or process of bringing something into existence from nothing by divine or natural agency” (OED). Besides being connected to arts and crafts and building works, creation encompasses more metaphorical inventive acts such as map-making and story-telling. Its opposite, destruction, is also noticeably present in the narrative through military conflicts and violent exactions. Powerful oppositional dynamics of life and death are thus at stake in the novel. Interestingly however, this dual delineation is far from being clear-cut, considering the pervasive ambivalence of the very act of creation as a gesture potentially involving destruction and annihilation. Although creation undoubtedly empowers its enactors, it may also verge on overwhelming repression, which raises questions of agency and autonomy. The connection with magic is also to be questioned as creation often oscillates between artificiality and authenticity. Lastly, the extent to which imagination is instrumental to the creative act shall be explored by considering the way in which the narrative itself is framed as an act of creation.

1. “To perform the act of creation” (17)

“To perform the act of creation”: such is the fundamental, primeval act in Victory City (17). It is indeed the way in which the story of Bisnaga is launched, and the creative act is later replicated in part II, when the characters start off their forest life by building a hut and “weaving their new home into being” (126). Interestingly, the very first word of the novel, which is also the title of the first part, is “birth”, which points to the biological moment of coming into life. The city of Bisnaga goes through a rather uncommon “procreation” process however as the “Created Generation” is said to be “born from seeds” (164). Indeed, two cowherds called Hukka and Bukka, also known as the Sangama brothers, were prompted by the heroine Pampa Kampana to scatter the seeds they had brought her as an offering: “these are the seeds of your future. Your city will grow from them” (14). The city’s “birth” appears as a true maieutic event, considering that the “new” people are referred to as the Sangama brothers’ “progeny” (20). The emphasis is then laid on the ground-breaking nature of the environment, as the adjective “new” is repeatedly used throughout the description (“the new streets”; “the new people”, “the new city”; “newly created selves”, 21-24). Although the city has been brought into “sudden existence” (21), it still gradually develops, as the continuous form suggests in Bukka’s following statement: “our city is still in the process of being born” (23 Indeed, Bisnaga goes through a progressive birth: buildings are erected as a starting-point; afterwards, the first inhabitants come to life and receive memories and stories through mysterious “whispers” uttered by Pampa Kampana as a way of  breathing life, so to speak, into their  beings (31). In addition to this double temporal dimension – poised between graduality and suddenness –, Bisnaga’s creation is also both natural and unnatural: on the one hand, the seeds gesture towards a botanical, agricultural growth; on the other hand, the speed of this apparition cannot but convey mystery. The city has “sprouted up out of rocks and dust” (14), people have been “brought into being out of nowhere” (21), and are “born full-grown from the brown earth” (16). In that regard, the juxtaposition of the two complements (“born” and “full-grown”) sounds paradoxical. The city seems to have sprung to life on its own: “the miracle city started growing”, “the stone edifices of the central zone pushing up from the rocky ground” (15). The “city” and the “edifices” are here positioned as the subjects of the sentence, as if they were endowed with proper agency.

Bisnaga is thus portrayed as a “born” city whose mother is Pampa Kampana. Not only is she, biologically speaking, the mother of three sons and three daughters, but she is also “the mother of the empire” (250), “the mother of them all” (32). She may even be regarded as a demiurgic figure as she is the causal principle of the city’s existence and the one shaping the whole world of Bisnaga: “Everything that has happened here, happened because of me”, she tells her descendant Zerelda Li in part III (241). Creation is thoroughly presented as the gods’ prerogative in the narrative, as “a thing only the gods can do” (17), and Pampa is endowed with such divine powers. Numerous periphrases highlight the heroine’s uncommon abilities and her mastery of time and space, such as the “maker of miracles whom the goddess had touched long ago” (286), “the mistress of chronology” (292) or “the creator of the city” (292). More practically speaking, Pampa Kampana as a queen equally manages to imprint her mark on Bisnaga: the crafting of temples, walls and palaces locates creation as an essential practice turning Bisnaga into a work of art. As Pampa puts it in part III: “my art caused the walls to rise” (241). The “act” of creation thus becomes an “art” of creation involving technique, material and craftsmanship. Pampa Kampana also implements new values and moral standards in the city: she “set about quietly changing the world” (266) by “creating a life of delight” so as to turn Bisnaga into a “place of laughter, happiness” (90-91). The construction of schools for girls, for instance, epitomizes Pampa’s desire to create a whole new environment no longer determined by patriarchal rules. A new political and social framework is thus given to the city, so that “creation” turns into “creativity”.

2. Forces of destruction and “de-creation”

In spite of such an overwhelming creativity, the creative act in Victory City is not as straightforward as it may seem. Hukka and Bukka, for instance, are aware of its limits at the beginning of the novel when they consider their uneducated subjects: “the act of creation was only the first of many necessary acts […] even the powerful magic of seeds could not provide everything that was needed” (24). Later on in the novel, Pampa Kampana faces a similar challenge when she tries to re-whisper to the Created Generation to re-educate them: “Pampa learned the lesson every creator must learn, even God himself. Once you had created your characters, you had to be bound by their choices. You were no longer free to remake them according to your own desires. They were what they were and they would do what they would do” (100). Creation thus appears as a somewhat constraining process marked by insufficiency and irreversibility.

In addition to these inner limitations, creation comes to be challenged by outer forces of destruction that powerfully operate in Rushdie’s novel, to such an extent that they may even counter “the creative act”. Obvious negative dynamics may be identified in the recurring pattern of conflict, rivalry, war and death. To quote but one example, the novel starts off violently with the description of a traumatic event for the young Pampa, when, following King Kampila’s military defeat, she witnesses widows of the kingdom commit mass suicide by immolation.

Creation is equally challenged by more insidious forms of annihilation. The act of creation itself is not necessarily synonymous with life and vitality, as when Zerelda’s sisters build additional rooms to their forest dwelling out of anger after they have discovered their sister’s escape: “the princesses released their rage into construction projects” (148). Various past participles indicate a process of construction such as “carved”, “whittled”, “curved” or “built”, yet the dwelling does not feel homely because “it had been built with wrath” (148). Similarly, the temple Pampa orders to be built in part I is suffused with ambivalence: stonemasons and woodcarvers are selected to “create a magnificent edifice”, “a spectacular new temple” (88). However, this temple is partly a way for Pampa Kampana to avenge herself on Vidyasagar, the ascetic sage living in a cave who sheltered Pampa Kampana but also abused her when she was a young girl. Creation is therefore based on negative motives in these cases.

Pampa Kampana herself may be considered through the prism of ambiguity as the creative power she is endowed with may at times verge on control and manipulation. She is indeed the one framing the people’s memories and lives by whispering into their ears, as indicated by the passive voice in the following statement: “The character of this new city was shaped, in important ways, by Pampa Kampana’s memories” (37). The heroine thus seems to act as a writer “making up” her characters (31, 164): “they were blank slates, empty heads, and when she wrote their stories on those slates, they accepted the narratives she was planting in their heads without making any fuss” (164). The metaphorical image shows how artificial the world of Bisnaga ultimately is by revealing the inner mechanisms of narrative-writing. Pampa eventually takes on the role of a puppeteer pulling the strings of a play – King Deva is indeed referred to as “a puppet on my strings” by Pampa, after she has whispered into his ears (169), thus implying how ambiguous and potentially repressive Pampa’s position may be as a creator.  

Pampa’s creative agency even acquires a destructive quality at times, partly because of her warlike abilities, and partly because of the ambivalence of her power: for instance, after Domingo Nunes’s death, ((Domingo Nunes is a Portuguese traveller as well as Pampa Kampana’s lover at the beginning of the novel.)) Pampa Kampana starts being feared because “she could not only whisper [people] alive but also whisper them dead” (68). Equally, when she has disowned her sons, the members of the council start being concerned about the kingdom’s longevity, as the rhetorical question underlines: “As she had created it, might she not also be its destroyer?” (97). Pampa’s creative power is closely associated with an annihilating potential, as if she were in reality a kind of “anti-creator” bringing things into death instead of life. This power takes on a somewhat “vampiric” quality as she remains young and pretty while everyone else around her ages and passes away, as Margaret Atwood suggests in her 2023 interview with PEN America. Consequently, the goddess’s “gift” (90) possibly turns into a curse or is at least double-edged considering Pampa’s ability to “de-create” things. This ambiguity is reinforced by Pampa’s dual nature as both a creator and a creature – she is indeed referred to as a “creature” of the world (179), as a “magical creature” (224) feeling “as if unborn” (179).

3. Towards “re-creation”

Destructive dynamics are nevertheless made up for by a variety of regenerative and re-creating practices and devices in Victory City. Crafting geographies first makes it possible to engage in a re-creative perspective. The most striking example may be found in part III when Zerelda Li designs maps of two countries in the Map Room of the Lotus Palace thanks to the gift she has of “holding the shape of things in [her] mind” (203): “The city of fleeting time and butterfly nets, and the city of flighted humans and flightless birds, were both depicted in dazzling colours and extraordinary details” (216-7). This passage comes right after Zerelda Li and Pampa Kampana have angrily argued over the king’s love preferences. It may be regarded as a kind of peacemaking interlude opening up new perspectives, considering that Zerelda will subsequently gain the king’s favours and make up with a Pampa who is deeply moved by the sight of the maps. Consequently, in this instance, it is as if the creative power of maps made it possible to start anew emotionally and relationally speaking. Zerelda’s maps are supposedly modelled on Bisnaga, as the mapmaker herself declares: “Every map that I have made is a portrait of where we are standing right now. They are all maps of Bisnaga” (217). Nevertheless, it seems that cartography also has much to do with imagination, as Pampa’s words might suggest: “these are […] places to travel to in dreams, not places that one can visit in one’s waking hours” (217). This creative cartographic process relies upon former ones, when, in part II, Grandmaster Li and Zerelda Sangama had imagined a geography of their own – “the city of Zerelda” and “the city of Ye-He” (143) ((Grandmaster Li was the martial arts instructor of Pampa and her daughters at the palace. He accompanied them to the Enchanted Forests in part II before leaving with Zerelda Sangama, Pampa and Domingo Nunes’s second daughter.)). Although these places are supposedly drawn from actual locations in Asia, they are simultaneously metamorphosed as they are here endowed with a sentimental undertone, thus manifesting how the characters refashion the land through cartographic discourses. Map-making is thus a way for the protagonists to re-shape their environment and to start a new life as they will then acknowledge their love for one another, leave the forest and explore the wider world together.

Besides maps, stories simultaneously function as objects and means of re-creation in Victory City. First, the novel shows how stories are created. The narrator presents themself as a “spinner of yarns” playing with different threads (4) including that of Pampa Kampana’s narrative (the “Jayaparajaya” 3), ((The Jayaparajaya, meaning ‘Victory and Defeat’, is the “immense narrative poem about Bisnaga” written by Pampa Kampana in Sanskrit and supposedly found by the narrator “in a clay pot” many centuries later (3).)) thus showcasing the creative process and conveying an effect of mise en abyme. From the start, Pampa Kampana is portrayed writing with “poetic genius”: “She wrote almost every day […]. This was the period in which she composed what became the prelude to her Victory and Defeat. The subject of the main part of the poem would be the history of Bisnaga from its creation to its destruction” (11). Not only are stories recorded in written forms, but they are also created, re-created and transmitted orally, notably when Pampa Kampana dictates her story to Zerelda Li. In fact, stories were originally created orally thanks to Pampa’s “early creative whispers” (98) by which she made up the inhabitants’ memories and lives and “planted fictional histories” in them (169). The botanical metaphor here suggests that the concrete rising of the city goes hand in hand with the elaboration of a common cultural framework. Strikingly enough, the creation of Bisnaga is complete only when stories are “whispered” and circulated. As a result, Pampa Kampana may be interpreted as a mirror image of the writer metaphorically planting seeds, whispering, shaping a whole world and infusing life in the characters. In that regard, the novel seems to offer a glimpse into the writer’s workshop.

Stories, in addition to being themselves made-up narratives, appear as central creative devices bringing things into existence. The empire comes into being through language. Pampa’s “early creative whispers” (98) highlight the creative potential of words: “the whispered stories […] created the truth, and brought into being a city and an army” (47). Stories’ actualising capacity is more specifically made visible in the following quote: “Fictions could be as powerful as histories, revealing the new people to themselves, allowing them to understand their own natures and the natures of those around them, and making them real” (47). In this passage, verbs of action like “revealing” and “making” are associated with the subject “[f]ictions”, which suggests the active quality of words. The expression “making them real” in this quote is used again later on in the novel when Pampa recalls the beginnings of Bisnaga and how she “had made it real” (224). By doing so, the narrator emphasises the stories’ agency and metamorphic influence over the material and symbolic environment. Pampa’s written account of the events then further contributes to giving “voice to the anonymous, to the ordinary citizens, the little people, the unseen, and […] in these pages of the immense work Bisnaga comes most vividly to life” (290-1). The use of the present tense (“comes”) indicates how Pampa’s narrative achieves, performs, and creates life, so to speak. This is surely reminiscent of the Greek etymology of the term “creation” – “poièsis” –, which draws an intrinsic connection between concrete production and literary work. Creation is therefore enacted through and by stories in a very powerful way. Victory City is turned into a ground for literary experiment and creation, and is ultimately fashioned as a “city of words”, to quote from the final page of the book (338).

Commented excerpt

In this passage, following the suggestion of her descendant Zerelda Li, Pampa Kampana makes the walls of the city rise by once again planting seeds all around Bisnaga, as a way of asserting her legitimacy as the town’s original maker.

She went out alone into the rocky brown plain and looked up at the surrounding hills, as if she was letting them know that they were about to experience a great change. Then she walked forward into the emptiness and nobody saw her for many weeks. Afterward in the Jayaparajaya she described her long wanderings across the plain, up the hills, down into the valleys, and told how she chanted and sang as she walked.

Yes, the land is barren, (she wrote)

But song can make fruits grow

Even in a desert

And the fruits of songs become

The wonders of the world.

At length she came down again into the wide Bisnaga plain, her skin dusty and her lips parched. It was dawn again, and the shadows of the hills retreated and sunlight flowed over her, a river of heat. Pampa Kampana stood very still for the next seven hours, ignoring the sweat that began to run down from her head, the perspiration flowing out from all her body’s pores, the dust on her skin turning to mud, the shimmer of the heat in the air, the drumbeat of the heat in her ears. After seven hours she closed her eyes and raised her arms and her miracle began.

The stone walls rose up everywhere that she had planted their seeds, along the riverbank, through the plains, and up and down the hills of that harsh terrain. The river washed the stones, the plains were dominated by their eminence, and the ranges of hills surrounding Bisnaga City raised the new defences up toward the sky. There were watchtowers awaiting sentries, crenellated ramparts lacking only archers, and cannons, and cauldrons of hot oil. There were gates strong enough to resist the heaviest of battering rams. From that day until the last day no enemy would ever set foot in the heart of the empire, and on that last day the enemy only entered because the people had lost hope. Only despair could make the walls crumble and fall, and the coming of that despair was still long years away.

Six new circles of high stone walls, born of enchanted seeds, and seven circles in all: the wonders of the world.

Rushdie, Salman. 2023. Victory City. London: Penguin Random House, pp. 243-4.

This passage shows creation in the making as it pictures Pampa Kampana seeding, singing and raising her arms to erect the city’s walls. Creation entails a significant physical involvement on the protagonist’s part, who first walks across the whole surrounding land, as the various prepositions indicate (“across the plain, up the hills, down into the valleys”), so that Pampa’s seeds are sown in varied topographic locations. Moreover, the text is pervaded by a sensory dimension – touch and sight in particular –, thus presenting creation as an embodied experience that is potentially painful, all the more so as Pampa is utterly exhausted at the end of the day. Agency is here intertwined with magic: the extraordinary irrupts in the everyday – the substantive “miracle” is repeated several times in the passage –, yet, a deep sense of physicality nonetheless prevails.

This extract functions as a kind of re-creation for Bisnaga or re-enactment of the original “creative act”. However, compared to the original creation moment, the rising of the walls provides an impression of heightened agency as Pampa is here the one planting the seeds, as opposed to part I when she simply gave the seeds to the two cowherds Hukka and Bukka who then scattered them. Re-creation also operates in a different way here through the various literary frames the narrator borrows and transforms in this excerpt. Number seven, first, sounds particularly symbolic and may be reminiscent of Biblical Creation narrated in Genesis. The “seven hours” Pampa takes to create the “seven” walls of Bisnaga may consequently point to the sacred dimension of creation. What is more, Pampa’s song in italics works as an incantation or a spell, just as in a fairy-tale. It is a poetic moment – literally, a moment of creation – both concretely and figuratively, which illustrates the performative capacity of language. The passage may thus be seen as a literary re-creation of former textual elements showcasing the process of creation.

Notes

Bibliography

RUSHDIE, Salman. 2023. Victory City. London: Penguin Random House.

Oxford English Dictionary. “Creation”, https://www.oed.com/search/dictionary/?scope=Entries&q=creation.

PEN American. 2023. “Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood Celebrate Salman Rushdie’s Latest Book, Victory City”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fib82CJ0XIk.

 

Cette fiche a été rédigée dans le cadre d'un Master 2 à l'ENS de Lyon.

 

Pour citer cette ressource :

Marie-Gaëlle Drouet, "Creation in Salman Rushdie’s « Victory City » (2023)", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2024. Consulté le 25/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/creation-in-salman-rusdhie-s-victory-city-2023