In Salman Rushdie’s magnificent new novel, the narrator describes himself as “neither a scholar nor a poet, but merely a spinner of yarns”. Yet the “yarn” that he has to spin is – amongst much else – a tale about the power of fiction, stories and the uninhibited imagination.
Framed as a retelling of an “immense narrative poem”, the Jayaparajaya, written in Sanskrit, and supposedly buried by by the “the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampana” on the last day of her life when she was aged 247, Victory City (Jonathan Cape) – Rushdie’s 15th novel – recounts the mythical history of the Bisnaga empire, which arises miraculously from the earth of 14th-century India as the fruit of scattered magical seeds.
Its citizens, also conjured into existence, are given selves and backstories by the “whispering” of Pampa Kampana: “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. This was the paradox of the whispered stories: they were no more than make-believe but they created the truth, and brought into being a city and an army with all the rich diversity of non-fictional people with deep roots in the actually existing world”.
Loosely inspired by the medieval kingdom of Vijayanagara, which rose and fell between 1336 and 1565, the story of Bisnaga is told as legend rather than history and – as so often in Rushdie’s fiction – revels in the commingling of lofty myth and earthy detail; in the elasticity of the normal rules of time and space; and in the juxtaposition of the grand and the demotic.
The novel owes as much to the packed technicolor screens of Bollywood as it does to the epic model of the Mahābhārata. Pampa Kampana may be divinely inspired but that does not stop her from ensuring that she and her daughters can take care of themselves in a punch-up, instructed in the ways of kung fu by a Chinese martial arts grandmaster. The first two kings of Bisnaga, the brothers Hukka and Bukka, veer between majesty and the spirit of Abbott and Costello. There are talking animals, drunken scenes in taverns, love stories galore. Victory City defies category, genre or imaginative boundaries. As always, the 75-year-old Rushdie refuses to be a literary butterfly pinned in the display cabinet.
Gloriously free as a novelist, he has nonetheless been dealt grievously harsh blows by real life. Pampa Kampana, he writes, feels like a “container into which history was being shovelled”, and he too has been swept up for decades in the mad surge of theocratic fanaticism.
On 12 August, Rushdie was stabbed at least ten times by an assailant who rushed the stage at a speaking event in Chautauqua, New York. Hospitalised by his terrible injuries for six weeks, he was left partially blinded and barely able to use his left hand. As he tells David Remnick in the current issue of the New Yorker: “When I say I’m fine, I mean, there’s bits of my body that need constant checkups. It was a colossal attack”.
This barbarous attempt on his life was a vicious reminder that fanaticism never sleeps. In February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa demanding the death of Rushdie over The Satanic Verses – a supposedly blasphemous attack on the Prophet Muhammad. The novelist was forced into hiding for a decade. Meanwhile, his book was burned at rallies around the world. Its Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was assassinated in 1991, while the novel’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, only narrowly escaped a similar fate in 1993.
I interviewed Rushdie for the Times during this period and can still remember the elaborate precautions taken by his Special Branch protectors – one of whom met me at a prearranged location in north London before we screeched off at high speed, with many sudden handbrake turns to shake off anyone who might be tailing us. Rushdie was in yet another safe house and – as ever – engaging, witty and keen to talk about his work and literature in general rather than just the fatwa. Three decades later, I can recall my sense of admiration for his resilience; and my deep dismay that a novelist in late 20th-century Britain should have to live as a fugitive.
In September 1998, as it sought to restore diplomatic relations with the UK, the Iranian government declared itself suddenly agnostic about the death sentence – a signal, it seemed, that Rushdie might yet resume something approaching a normal life. Recognising that the fatwa had not been formally lifted, he nonetheless embraced the opportunity with courage and relish – a process of emergence described movingly in the final section of his memoir Joseph Anton (2012).
Which is not to say that the author was ever sanguine about the enduring power of fundamentalism generally, and Islamofascism specifically. Though written before the Chautauqua attack, Victory City confronts the ever-present threat of puritanism and doctrinal limitations upon personal liberty. Bisnaga is a city of burgeoning feminist equality – its women are lawyers, labourers, police officers and dentists – but is constantly menaced by patriarchal religiosity.
The contemporary resonance with Modi’s Hindu nationalism scarcely needs to be spelt out. But the contest between two ways of living, two sets of ideas, is universal as well as specific. As the novel’s narrator explains: “The reality of poetry and the imagination follows its own rules” – which is precisely why totalitarian and theocratic regimes invariably seek to control and subdue art.
Even before the fatwa, Rushdie had confronted this collision in his masterpiece Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983) and other novels. As his great friend, the late Christopher Hitchens put it in a reflection upon the Satanic Verses affair: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind.”
A secondary source of dismay after last August’s attack upon the novelist was the relatively muted character of the response to it. Yes, there were public readings of his work near the steps of the New York Public Library. Joe Biden issued a statement; Boris Johnson tweeted that he was “appalled”; among world leaders, only Emmanuel Macron truly saw the point and offered more than ritual denunciation: “His fight is our fight; it is universal. Now more than ever, we stand by his side.”
In general, there was a depressing sense that most public figures and organisations were going through the motions. Though the horror at Rushdie’s personal plight was real enough, there was little if any taste to renew the battle of principle.
As the writer Kenan Malik has pointedly observed, we have “internalised” the fatwa. Since its declaration 34 years ago, free speech has been dramatically relegated in the hierarchy of the West’s moral priorities and cherished values. We live now in an age of (often subconscious) self-censorship, in which the so-called “right not to be offended” threatens to eclipse the right to free expression; in which the supposed “harms” caused by speech matter more than the protection of speech itself.
Novels are meant to be playful, subversive and reckless. Increasingly, however – and with some superb exceptions – today’s literary fiction tends to be cramped, constrained, well-behaved, inclined to scold rather than to liberate.
Nobody really bothers to pretend any longer that The Satanic Verses would find a mainstream publisher if it were written today. The republic of letters is now policed by “sensitivity readers”, its once jubilant streets full of trigger warnings, instructions to authors to “stay in their lane” and prohibitions against “cultural appropriation”. Though nobody quite spells this out, the civic task of the novelist is no longer to be an intellectual and imaginative provocateur but to act as an emotional support provider.
There is a splendid symmetry, then, in the return of the indomitable Rushdie – who has paid such a heavy price for his fealty to fiction’s true covenant with the reader. Victory City is one of his very best novels. It is also a luminous, italicised, vibrant reminder of the possibilities of free expression and of the untrammelled imagination. In this instance, the medium is indeed the message.
“Words are the only victors,” writes Pampa Kampana. So too, by the very act of returning to his desk, is Rushdie. And so, if we have the sense to read what he writes and to embrace what it stands for, are we.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Women Talking (selected cinemas, 10 February)
Though Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Banshees of Inisherin (see Creative Sensemaker, 12 May and 27 October, 2022) remain the bookies’ favourites to pick up the Oscar for Best Picture on 13 March, it would be a wonderful surprise if the Academy chose Sarah Polley’s extraordinary film.
Based on Miriam Toews’ novel of 2018 – which was in turn a literary response to a real-life series of sexual assaults on Mennonite women in Bolivia – the movie traces the deliberations of eight female characters, as they decide what to do about the horrors that have been perpetrated by the men of their religious community.
For years, these women and those they represent have been systematically drugged with cattle tranquiliser, raped and lied to: “When we woke up, feeling hands that were no longer there, the elders told us that it was the work of ghosts, or Satan, or that we were lying to get attention, or that it was an act of wild female imagination.”
Caught in a horrific assault upon a young child, the men have left the site to deal with the legal consequences – and given the women an ultimatum to decide whether they will stay or go (the latter option meaning that they will be “denied entry to the Kingdom of Heaven”).
Gathering in a hayloft, they proceed to debate their options; and, in so doing, find themselves confronting fundamental questions about justice, vengeance, faith, redemption and belonging. Because the women are forbidden to read and write, the minutes are taken by August (Ben Whishaw), the son of a woman excommunicated from the community who now teaches its boys.
The ensemble cast is quite something: Claire Foy as Salome is full of outrage, as is Mariche (Jessie Buckley); while Ona (Rooney Mara), though raped and pregnant, believes it may yet be possible to rebuild the community on the basis of equality. “When we’ve liberated ourselves, we’ll have to ask ourselves who we are,” she says.
It is a measure of the cast’s quality that Frances McDormand (who has won the Oscar for Best Actress three times) appears only in a cameo role as “Scarface Janz” – one of a small group of women who have already decided to stay.
The dramatic impact of Women Talking is much enhanced by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s beautiful score and the colour-washed aesthetic created by cinematographer Luc Montpellier. But the power of the movie is principally to be found in its language – the voices of disagreement and the united voice of women demanding, at last, to be heard. Don’t even think of missing this.
The Gold (BBC One, 12 February; all episodes iPlayer)
In spite of its notoriety, the Brink’s-Mat robbery of £26 million worth of gold on 26 November 1983 has never been satisfactorily dramatised. Forty years on, the gap has been filled in this fine six-part series, written by Neil Forsyth and co-directed by Aneil Karia and Lawrence Gough.
The rough-hewn style is cleverly reminiscent of the Euston Films cop series of the 1970s and 1980s, and of the greatest London gangster film ever made, The Long Good Friday (1980). But, in a break with the conventions of heist drama, the theft itself – from the Heathrow International Trading Estate – is not the heart of the story but merely the preamble to the entangled aftermath that sees DCI Brian Boyce (Hugh Bonneville, as far from Downton as he has ever been) tasked to run a special unit with Flying Squad detectives Nicki Jennings (Charlotte Spencer) and Tony Brightwell (Emun Elliott); not only chasing villains but negotiating the thickets of a police force still deeply corrupted by Masonry.
On the other side of the law are Micky McAvoy (Adam Nagaitis), the first of the robbers to be collared; Edwyn Cooper (Dominic Cooper), the ambitious solicitor who hides the money in Docklands property investment and secret foreign bank accounts; and – best of all – Jack Lowden, fresh from his success in Slow Horses, as Kenneth Noye, the specialist fence who must move the gold itself.
Lowden has never been better, portraying Noye as a man consumed by social ambition and a craving not only to be rich but to be “a king”. He is entertainingly offhand with his crew (“Lose the syrup [wig] and piss off home!”) and increasingly monomaniacal in his belief that he is destined to get away with it. But he also foretells his fate in episode one when he observes the sheer unbiddable power that the robbery has unleashed: “Gold like that. You can’t control it. No one can.”
Knock at the Cabin (general release)
What would you do if your family’s woodland cabin holiday was interrupted by Ron Weasley and former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista knocking at the door? And what if they insisted that – unless one of you died – the world would face Armageddon? How seriously would you take Ron and Dave?
The answer in M. Night Shyamalan’s latest psychological thriller is: pretty seriously. To be fair, Rupert Grint is no longer playing Harry Potter’s ginger sidekick and Bautista is not a wrestler lost in the woods but Leonard – a second-grade teacher who, along with Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Grint), has terrible news for the family in the cabin – seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) and her two dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge).
And the news is this: unless the family agrees to kill one of their number, the world will end. Leonard turns on the TV to show the first wave of disasters: tsunamis, lethal disease, earthquakes, terrible accidents. As crazy as the four intruders – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? – undoubtedly sound, their prophecies are unfolding exactly as foretold; and time is running out.
Happily, Shyamalan seems finally to have ditched his obsession with ending every movie with a twist to match the last scene of The Sixth Sense (1999) – a doomed enterprise if ever there was one. Instead, Knock at the Cabin – based on Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel – is an absorbing and fast-paced battle between faith and reason, with overtones of today’s culture wars (it is never clear whether Eric and Andrew have been selected because they are gay – or if their sexuality is incidental in some deeper occult scheme). Avoid spoilers if you can, as the final act is very good indeed – not least because Bautista is maturing into a formidable actor.
Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory – Janet Malcolm (Granta)
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”: the legendary opening lines of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (1989) still send a chill down the spine of any thoughtful practitioner of my trade.
But that was part of what made Malcolm so unique: her pitiless eye for the cracks in the text, the premise, the assumption of objectivity. In books such as In the Freud Archives (1984), The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) and Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial (2011), she remorselessly interrogated the very process of writing and reporting. When she died aged 86 in 2021 – the same year as Joan Didion – the world lost one of the truly great postwar long-form journalists.
Clocking in at a slender 155 pages, Still Pictures is not the detailed memoir one might have wished for (Malcolm had grave reservations about autobiography on principle). But these 26 brief essays, bookended by an introduction by her friend Ian Frazier and an afterword by her daughter Anne, use family photos as visual pegs for highly specific, micromanaged recollections.
Of her departure from Prague with her parents in July 1939, she writes: “We were among the small number of Jews who escaped the fate of the rest by sheer dumb luck, as a few random insects escape a poison spray.” She does not readily disclose her feelings. “I’m not sure that I am ready to write about my mother yet,” she writes, yet her very reticence is often eloquent: “He was a wonderful father. I know he dearly loved my sister and me. But he loved his own life more and seemed to have hated leaving it more than most men and women do… I am flooded with things I want to say about him.”
Those who charge Malcolm with chilliness miss the point entirely: she was full of passions, dreams, memories, disappointments. In these pensées – on subjects as various as school days, movies, flowers, Atlantic City, being ill, a newspaper comic strip and Holbein – we glimpse something of the flesh-and-blood woman so committed to her craft. And that commitment never wavered, right to the end.
The Aftermath: The Last Days of The Baby Boom and The Future of Power in America – Philip Bump (Viking)
Books on generation gaps now appear so frequently that it is wise to be selective. This one, by the Washington Post columnist, Philip Bump is most certainly worthy of your time.
Between 1946 and 1964, about 76 million people were born in the United States – a demographic phenomenon that transformed the character of the country, its government and its culture. At the heart of the book is Bump’s two-part contention: first, that the Boomers have been historically consequential; and second, that Americans (and therefore the rest of the world) should be thinking about their eventual disappearance from national life and what will take their place.
In their youth, the Boomers opposed the Vietnam draft and danced to the music of Woodstock. But they also (eventually) bought into the sturdy institutions of American society, especially marriage, the life-long career and home ownership. Though they did not uniformly lurch to the Right in middle age, they became sufficiently worried about the economic, social and racial tensions of the early 21st Century to secure Donald Trump the presidency.
Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are radically different – in the depth of their liberalism, their enthusiasm for higher education and (so far) their disinclination to shuffle rightwards as they grow older.
Bump’s use of data and graphics is superb, and ensures that the book is provisional and nuanced rather than glib and anecdotal. He shows that the old race-based electoral coalitions can no longer be taken for granted – Black and Latino voters are divided now – and that, whatever comes next, “will be affected in part by the choices boomers make about how they spend their retirements and how and when they pass their wealth on to younger Americans. But it will also be a function of political decisions being made, decisions that will still bear the boomers’ fingerprints.”
Younger generations are certainly staking their claim to the torch of which Kennedy spoke, in other words – but will the Boomers pass it on with grace?
The World and All That It Holds – Aleksandar Hemon (Picador)
Reminiscent in its ambition of Vassily Grossman’s fiction and in its picaresque spirit of Günter Grass, Aleksandar Hemon’s novel is his most accomplished to date and often dazzling in its portrayal of the interaction between the personal and the historical in 20th-century Europe.
Rafael Pinto is a gay Bosnian-Jewish apothecary, who witnesses the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. This was “the exact moment, no longer than what passes between heartbeats, that broke the world in two, into the before and the after.”
While serving as a physician in the Austro-Hungarian army, Pinto meets and falls in love with a Muslim soldier, Osman Karisik. They manage to stay together in a prisoner-of-war camp in Tashkent and, on their release, become embroiled in the Russian Revolution. But their perilous idyll comes to an end when they are separated in the mountains of Turkestan and Pinto’s preoccupation becomes the safety of his adopted daughter Rahela.
Their long journey takes them to Shanghai – where he becomes addicted to opium. Interpolated into the plot, meanwhile, is the very different narrative voice of British secret agent, Major “Sparky” Moser-Etherington, a character straight from the pages of John Buchan, who provides an entirely different perspective upon the violent upheavals that are traumatising a continent.
Epic in scope, The World and All that it Holds takes us up to the very eve of 9/11, and a haunting conclusion that reminds us that the present century is very much the child of the last in its cataclysms and fearful migrations. “The past was elsewhere,” Hemon writes, “the present was always this — the masses of refugees moving around the city looking for food and a place, for some way not to die.”
The WAEVE – The WAEVE
Even as he prepares for this summer’s big Blur reunion gigs, the band’s lead guitarist Graham Coxon and his partner (in both life and art), former Pipettes member Rose Elinor Dougall, have produced one of the most interesting albums of recent months.
Announcing themselves to the world as The WAEVE, the duo bring huge musical accomplishments to their collaboration, creating a sound that is about as far from the breezy snark of Britpop as it is possible to imagine. Instead, they dig deep into the English folk tradition – not, as Dougall told the NME, its “twee side”, but “life and death and all that kind of thing. There’s a brutality to nature. It’s not all pastoral. Those are the visual things I feel that our music summons up.”
Most striking of all – given Coxon’s virtuosity on the guitar – is the instrument’s relative absence from these ten tracks. He does play the medieval lute, though, on “All Along”, and the saxophone features often enough, alongside piano, drums and modular synth, to evoke memories of classic Roxy Music. The combined effect is what can only be described as Wicker Man indie, a multi-layered music that is both in-your-face and subtle in its allusions and nuances.
Though, from the first track “Can I Call You”, the album is very much the product of a love affair – “It’s enough that you’re here in the universe”, the couple sing on ‘Over And Over’- its horizons are broader than personal romance. Anyone who has read Coxon’s excellent memoir Verse, Chorus, Monster! can attest to the restless intellectual ambition of his art – and in Dougall he has clearly met his match. Tour details here.
My 21st Century Blues – RAYE
What were Polydor thinking? That is the question that may well grip you at the end of this storming debut album by the 25-year-old Rachel Keen, better known as RAYE. For six years, the label mysteriously vetoed her wish to release a long-player – and now she has done so independently, producing 15 tracks of bracing excellence. I have yet to read anything approaching an explanation of the label’s obstructions but – suffice to say – they are the losers.
Introduced to her audience as a cabaret torch singer, RAYE launches immediately into ‘Oscar Winning Tears’ (“So I’ll take this front row seat/ And baby, baby, you can go ahead/ Cry those Oscar winning tears”). Her vocal power is remarkable from start to finish, as is her capacity to swing from rap to falsetto without breaking a sweat.
The mix of genres is a further strength: R&B, bluesy jazz, soul, electro, rave club sounds. There’s vulnerability, too, in tales of failed relationships, loneliness and self-medication – as on “Mary Jane” (“How I miss your chemical hug/ Since I’ve been clean, ooh/ You hold me better than any man did/ And no one’s done it like you since/ Codeine”). And just to remind us: there’s “Escapism”, featuring 070 Shake, which gave RAYE her first UK Number One single last month.
And Polydor? I’m guessing that its executives will listen with particular attention to ‘Hard Out Here’: “On my way, figured a way, figured a way out/ My pen is a gun, pen is a gun/ All the white men CEOs, fuck your privilege/ Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth, fuck you think this is?” So there.
Hawaii – Public Image Ltd
Alright, so he didn’t win. John Lydon – AKA Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and frontman of PiL since 1978 – finished only fourth in the run-off last Friday to represent Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool (9-13 May). He probably hadn’t helped his chances much by telling RTE’s Radio 1, with characteristic candour, exactly what he thought of the whole process: “It’s absolutely awful, the songs. The whole thing of it is disgusting to me. I’m a songwriter, I perform live, and these shows just come across as so dreadfully phoney to me. But look, we’re giving it a chance to break out of that mould.”
Oddly enough, the Irish public and jury voters declined this generous offer. Even so: Hawaii, a love letter to his wife of more than 40 years, Nora Forster, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, is PiL at its very best. Lyrical, haunting and full of emotion without straying into sentimentality, it captures the spirit of a holiday the couple took years ago and is rooted in Lydon’s deep love for his ailing wife, for whom he has been caring for three years (“Don’t fly too soon/ No need to cry, in pain/ You are loved”).
The many facets of love have been central to PiL’s avant garde work over the decades – think ‘Death Disco’ (1979), ‘Flowers of Romance’ (1981) ‘This is Not a Love Song’ (1983). Like all the best post-punk performers, Lydon respects no limitations or categories. Hawaii is a moving record about deep, long-lasting and uncompromising devotion – and the contest in Liverpool will be poorer without it.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is my last Creative Sensemaker – which will now be edited by the brilliant James Wilson.
My thanks to all of the newsletter’s readers, to my talented colleagues at Tortoise and to those who have sent in tips and showed how deeply they care, in difficult times, about the future of culture, art and performance.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Renaud Khanh/ABACA/Shutterstock, Getty Images, Hamilton Metha Productions, Universal Pictures, Tannadice Pictures