Salman Rushdie's 'Knife' is unflinching about his brutal stabbing and uncanny in its vital spirit


By AGENCY

British-US author Salman Rushdie's new book 'Knife' on sale at a bookstore in New York, on April 16, 2024. — Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP

In Salman Rushdie's first book since the 2022 stabbing that hospitalised him and left him blind in one eye, the author wastes no time reliving the day he thought might be his last.

"At a quarter to eleven on August 12, 2022, on a sunny Friday morning in upstate New York, I was attacked and almost killed by a young man with a knife just after I came out on stage at the amphitheater in Chautauqua to talk about the importance of keeping writers safe from harm,” Rushdie writes in the opening paragraph of the memoir Knife, published Tuesday.

At just over 200 pages, Knife is a brief work in the canon of Rushdie, among the most exuberant and expansive of contemporary novelists. Knife is also his first memoir since "Joseph Anton,” the 2012 publication in which he looked back on the fatwa, the death decree, issued more than 20 years earlier by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini because of the alleged blasphemy in Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses.”

Rushdie was initially driven into hiding, and for years lived under constant protection. But the threat had seemingly receded and he had for some time been enjoying his preferred life of travel, social engagement and a free imagination, out at play in such recent novels as Quichotte and Victory City.

Author Salman Rushdie receives the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation's first ever lifetime achievement disturbing the peace award at the Vaclav Havel Center on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in New York. — Photo: APAuthor Salman Rushdie receives the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation's first ever lifetime achievement disturbing the peace award at the Vaclav Havel Center on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in New York. — Photo: AP

As Rushdie observes in Knife, subtitled Meditations After an Attempted Murder, he had sometimes pictured his "public assassin” turning up. But the timing of the 2022 attack seemed not just startling, but "anachronistic,” the rising of a "murderous ghost from the past,” returning to settle a score Rushdie thought long resolved. He refers to August 11, 2022, as his "last innocent evening.”

But in many ways, Knife is as notable for the spirit it shares with his other books as it is for the blunt and horrifying descriptions of the attack that did, and did not, change his life.

In the book's first chapter, Rushdie praises the "pure heroism,” the physical courage of the Chautauqua Institution event moderator Henry Reese, who grabbed the assailant. But if another kind of heroism is hope and determination (and humour) in the wake of trauma, then Knife is a heroic book, documenting Rushdie's journey from lying in his own blood to a return to the same stage 13 months later and attaining a state of "wounded happiness.”

Part of the story of Knife is that Rushdie's life, even over these past two years, is about more than an act of murderous violence. He dedicates a chapter to meeting and marrying the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, who greeted him during a PEN America event in 2017 and revealed a "dazzling smile” Rushdie found himself unable to forget. She had been in New York City when she learned of the stabbing, and hurried on a private plane to be with him, having been told he was unlikely to survive.

"I wasn't dead,” Rushdie wrote. "I was in surgery.”

As Rushdie recovered, he learned that his dear friend and fellow author Martin Amis was gravely ill with cancer. Rushdie and Amis were part of a circle of gifted friends from Britain that also included Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan. In what proved to be a farewell email, Rushdie praised the "generosity and kindness” of Amis' encouragement after the knife attack and celebrated such Amis novels as London Fields and Money.

Amis died in May 2023.

Rushdie's charged assailant is Hadi Matar, but the author refers to him as "The A.,” short for "The Ass” (or "Asinine man”). He does allow his imagination to expend itself on an unlikely dialogue with the fellow being he knows only through a momentous span of 27 seconds. Why even pretend to speak with his would-be killer? "I'm not looking for an apology. I do wonder how he feels, now that he has had time to think things over," Rushdie writes.

Matar's trial was delayed from January after a judge ruled he was allowed to seek the memoir's manuscript and related materials.

He will leave the hospital, "grow stronger in body and mind,” return to the events he attended so often before, like the annual PEN America gala. He will feel heartened by supportive messages, a "worldwide avalanche” – not just from friends, but heads of state, such as President Joe Biden, who will issue a statement citing Rushdie's commitment to "sharing ideas without fear.”

The nearness of death, Rushdie writes, can make you feel a "great loneliness.” Words from others "make you feel that you're not alone, that maybe you haven't lived and worked in vain.” — AP

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