Magic realism. What a tepid label for such an explosive and tender, fabulous and revolutionary idea. That you exist in the world but that the laws of life that govern physics and feeling, thought and thrust, are other-worldly. That to belong to this world does not require you to belong to its shackled, rote-learned, non-negotiable laws—gravity, time, constitution, both of the body and the land. The idea that to belong to this world you must merely belong to it. How elegant and simple.
As the self-styled pretentious teenagers in Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending would smirk, “It is philosophically self-evident”, and yet, it is this simple, self-evident truth—that to belong, you must merely belong—that I find most moving about the genre.
In her 2018 Nobel Lecture, the author Olga Tokarczuk spoke about a photograph of her mother, a black-and-white fading image taken much before Tokarczuk’s birth. In it, her mother looks sad, and every time Tokarczuk asked her to explain the expression, she received the same reply—that she was sad because Tokarczuk was not born yet, and she missed her not being there. A simple way to placate a child, that they were loved so much, this answer instead spun Tokarczuk into an elevated existence “beyond the ordinary materiality of the world, beyond chance, beyond cause and effect and the laws of probability”. With this tale Tokarczuk was given, what she calls a soul, “the world’s greatest tender narrator”.
Given the possibilities that exist for storytelling with soul, Tokarczuk laments, on a rather alarmist note, the explosive, unchecked, weedy growth of the first-person narrative, “a choir made up of soloists only, voices competing for attention”. Where are the stories as parables, stories with soul, ones that can lift you out of the world as opposed to grind you further into it?
Enter Salman Rushdie, a fellow autofiction grumbler, swaggering in his pirate patch, with decades of violence dodged, a few lifetimes’ worth of accolades and applause—and antagonists—crammed in, weaving parable after parable, notwithstanding their dull righteousness, their citric sharpness, their imaginative largeness, their literary smallness. Rushdie would call Tokarczuk’s soul the “act of imagination”.
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The protagonist of Rushdie’s 15th novel, Victory City, is a 238-year-old woman, Pampa Kampana, who retells the story of the Vijayanagara Empire—here, called Bisnaga—from its seeds to its supper. It is a fictionalised retelling of a chunk of centuries wrapped around an empire of great myths. For context, Abdur Razzak, an ambassador from the Timurid court, had famously refrained from describing the Belur temple because he thought he would be “suspected of exaggeration”. Rushdie has no such qualms.
Why fictionalise history, the way he did Akbar in The Enchantress of Florence? Because “fictions could be as powerful as histories, revealing the new people to themselves”—this is the dull, righteous Rushdie who fabricates platitudes, using the word “truth” as though it were a hazy word without fixed meaning, a virtue whose import only he can discern. Victory City is a book forcefully written in the present, by which I mean it looks at the past, assembling its stories from the present moment, trying to make it—oh that ugly word—“relevant”.
Looking down at the world
Every time he speaks of queerness or feminism or secularism or dissent (yes, dissent), it is so boastfully written, as though he is proud of the virtues he has leaked into his fictional world. He is always looking down at the world he has created, which keeps falling short of the idealistic threshold he has set through his tone. Can you spend a whole novel looking down at your creation?
But Rushdie also makes us cock our heads up, at birds as people, people as birds, magic floating around like infinity mirrors shimmering us occasionally out of the dull prose’s grip, and the prose, for all of Rushdie’s literary riotousness, is dull. Magic realism is Rushdie’s home ground, what he is most known for, for the depths of possibilities that he yanks out of a world. One reviewer even compared Victory City’s setting to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. A lazy, unearned comparison. The mystique of magic realism is that it does not have to explain itself. This was how Marquez wrote. He did not rationalise his bizarre creatures, they simply existed beyond the emotional and physical logic of the world. When blood flowed like a river, that is how it did, a simile turned into a fact. Magic in Marquez’s magic realism was not treated as “magic”, as separate from reality. It was part of the torquing world he spun.
- Magic realism is Rushdie’s home ground, what he is most known for, for the depths of possibilities that he yanks out of a world.
- Every time he speaks of queerness or feminism or secularism or dissent (yes, dissent), it is so boastfully written, as though he is proud of the virtues he has leaked into his fictional world.
With Rushdie, there is a constant need to explain the rules of fantasy, as though he is imposing magic on a real world. He gives magic only to a few characters. Others are ordinary. Pampa Kampana was nine when her mother left her and walked into a fire with all the women of the small kingdom that had just been lost in battle. When she saw “the last slabs of roasted flesh fall away” from her mother’s bones, she “laugh[ed] at death and turn[ed] her face towards life”—a goddess inhabited her, possessing her, and from then on, she began to live the life of an ad hoc goddess. Ad hoc because Rushdie keeps shifting the goalpost of what she can and cannot do.
Beyond the reach of my grumblings, there is the grasp of something exciting in the book. That the person who created this world—the “god” of this world, so to speak—by literally wishing and whispering it to life, is also the protagonist, whose life gets narrativised by the narrator. It is a story told in two layers: how Pampa Kampana lived her life and narrated it, and how the author tells us she lived her life and narrated it.
Midway through the novel, Rushdie changes the rules of the game, telling us that Pampa Kampana’s power to create a world does not mean she has the power to always create a world, and that once created, her creations begin to have this thing called freewill, which she cannot trample into control. She cannot exert her magic over animals of the forest.
We also find out that while she can implant ideas in the heads of people, she cannot implant ideologies, that is how deep the ideas embed. The ifs and buts of her power begin to crop up like unsuspecting weeds. This is an indictment of god—radical. This is also a frequent reminder of how this book uses magic as a convenient narrative device, now deployed, now revoked—frustrating. So, this world, this magical world, feels fragile, and almost unreal, like a scaffolding of air. If that collapses, would you care?
Rushdie’s novels remind me of that profound yet silly game we played as kids, where they tell you to close your eyes and to not imagine a pink elephant. When we open our eyes and are asked what we imagined, we would all reply in a singsong chorus: a pink elephant. This was because we were told not to do something, insisting on something, while expressing its opposite. This is Rushdie’s magic realism. He keeps telling us to not see the world as real, insisting on the “real world” being transcended by his magical characters, that all we foreground in our reading is not the magical itself but the real world and how it is being transcended. Submission is, thus, replaced with questions—how, what, when, why.
This is not odd or new. His books have always suffered from their inability to make magic seem magical. In his collection of essays Language of Truth, while taking us through the tired, familiar critique of Slumdog Millionaire, when noting how a boy from the slums makes it to Kaun Banega Crorepati, he asks in parenthesis, “how?”
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Form affects content, this much the literary critics of the 20th century have, for the most part, agreed upon. And it is this form of cinched magical realism that affects the way Rushdie narrates his protagonists as hollow creations of magic or as hollow creators of magic. Pampa Kampana whispers people into being, and through these whispers they acquire “individuality, memory, and history” which gradually makes them human.
Like a Chat GPT essay, these people are “artifactualized”, a vacant, flat summation of adjectives. Perhaps, I should not expect the easy profundity of a Kazuo Ishiguro from a Rushdie, yes, but to be served instead, reams of explanation—answers to the hows, whats, whens, and whys—is to endure facts. And nobody goes to fiction for facts.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.