The shock of Salman Rushdie’s horrific onstage maiming last August made it hard not to feel that we had somehow let our guard drop. After all, hadn’t the world’s most famous living writer long been a figure of fun? We scoffed at his thin-skinned tweets bizarrely comparing a female New York Times critic to Shakespeare’s Iago after she panned one of his novels; we giggled when a model leaked his out-of-the-blue message (“you look so gorgeous and hottt!”) and called him a “horny jerk”. By the time Rushdie made a cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm to explain the pleasures of “fatwa sex”, did any viewer truly keep in mind the continuing threat to his life?
And either way, if he was enjoying himself, who could begrudge him? Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton recalls how, after Ayatollah Khomeini called for his murder in 1989, he came under pressure to apologise for The Satanic Verses (1988) for the sake of British hostages in Beirut. A novelist! Seldom since has his work ever been allowed to stand free from the outsize freight loaded on to it by foes and well-wishers alike, and no doubt extravagant praise awaits his new book, Victory City, simply because it’s his first since last summer’s assault.
Styled as a plain-spoken retelling of a fictitious Sanskrit verse saga, it unfolds in a part-historical, part-magical medieval India where birds talk and people fly. We follow Pampa, an orphaned heroine who, divinely possessed, lives for 250 years in the city of Bisnaga – now a real ruin but first established, per the novel’s source, from a bag of scattered seeds and named after the garbled pronunciation of its Indian name, Vijayanagar, by a visiting Portuguese seaman whose own seed-scattering comes to shape the city’s royal bloodline.
So begins a knotty chronicle of intra-dynastic rivalry sparked by Pampa’s foiled bid to bring about equality of gender, sexuality and creed during her short-lived reign as queen. In exile, she plots a return to the throne with her great-great-great-great-granddaughter – one of a number of tickled details that nudge us away from taking anything here much too seriously. Another monarch dies in battle after dismounting his elephant mid-fight to have a pee; the book’s dizzying blizzard of names includes “Thimma the Huge’s almost-as-enormous descendant Thimma the Almost as Huge and Ulupi Junior’s blood kin, Ulupi the Even More Junior”.
The joke Rushdie spins out longest is that Victory City is but a “pale shadow” of its “genius” source. The conceit grows old fast, not least because of our nagging regret for the epic he might have written had he cut back on all the arch throat-clearing and devoted more energy to the actual action, typically summarised rather than dramatised. Instead, the book draws vital spark from the low-level comic voltage of clashing linguistic registers: where the characters say “fuck”, for instance, the narrator talks merely of “what may politely be called direct nocturnal actions”.
Against the largely unadorned dialogue, Rushdie’s voice can sound knowingly pulpy (characters outside a forest are said to be “gazing at their verdant destiny”) as well as oddly corporate (Bisnaga is “a dynamic place, capable of immense forward-looking energy”). Often, it’s just inescapably stodgy, as when Pampa et al transform into birds to come back from exile: “There were risks in such a bravura entry, there was the danger that such beings as they were revealing themselves to be would engender fear and hostility rather than acceptance.”
Let’s say the lumpy verbal surface means to embody the kind of celebratory commingling that Pampa seeks for Bisnagan society as she strives to undo repressive notions of purity. Even so, when you’re told that “the crow and the parrot made repeated visits to the city and reported to her that tensions between the communities were running high”, it’s a little like reading an Axel Scheffler book with the Today programme on in the background. (Another funny line comes when Rushdie oh so gallantly says Pampa, an ageless 191, looks “like a woman of thirty-five or so – thirty-eight at the most”. Hottt!)
A running gag in Rushdie’s previous novel, Quichotte (2019), was that all its characters contained elements of the author himself. You might see Pampa as another avatar, mired in the escalating fallout from her feats of world-building, worrying that she’s now “beside the point... after all these years”, facing down death threats (a warlord vows: “If I can’t burn you, I can certainly burn your book, which I don’t need to read to know that it’s full of unsuitable and forbidden thoughts”). Rather chillingly for a novel that was already done and dusted when Rushdie was attacked, Victory City’s late chapters describe Pampa’s convalescence after she is stabbed through the eyes.
Uncanny, to be sure, but just as striking is the peculiarly sterile fertility of a magical realist playground in which anything can happen and nothing seems to matter. Passages set in an enchanted wood make much of its otherworldly lawlessness, but given the state of the novel’s humdrum everyday it’s a distinction without difference. A storyteller with ample verbal gusto – the Rushdie of Midnight’s Children (1981) or Shame (1983) – would torpedo such quibbles in a heartbeat, but Victory City is ultimately an outline in need of casting and CGI: less the blood and thunder game of thrones promised by its ingredients, more a kind of autopilot postmodernism en route to nowhere but platitudes about the power of words – unless you count a vague allegorical undertow that says boo to rigidity and yay to plurality, a message that doesn’t make the book any more compelling just because its author bears the scars of theocracy.
“It may be... that the traveller is of greater interest to us than the tales”: so says one character of another here. I couldn’t help but think of Rushdie himself, a novelist who has long outstripped his medium, as much a cause as an author, possibly now more than ever. Will anyone even care that Victory City is a letdown? His actual writing has never really concerned his enemies – his accused attacker said he read just two pages of The Satanic Verses – and perhaps it no longer troubles his admirers all that much either. The question, seemingly more pressing with every book he publishes, is how much it still matters to Rushdie. Let’s keep everything crossed that we get to find out before too long.
• Victory City by Salman Rushdie is published by Jonathan Cape (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply