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In 'Knife', Salman Rushdie Uses Words as His Instrument to Challenge the Physical Attack on Him

author Sanjay Sipahimalani
Apr 22, 2024
Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on the writer comes back to haunt him once again after 33 years.

First, a look at the statistics. Almost 33 years and six months after Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious fatwa, Salman Rushdie was stabbed 15 times during an attack that lasted 27 seconds. He spent 18 days in hospital and a further three weeks in rehab. He lost sight in one eye and the partial use of one hand. These numbers are harrowing enough, but in the pages of Knife, Rushdie’s account of the incident and its aftermath, he goes beyond them to deliver a powerful, intimate account of trauma and recovery.

This book is full of wry ironies. Take the first sentence: “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 amphitheatre in Chautauqua to talk about the importance of keeping writers safe from harm.” As dramatic a way as any to kick off proceedings.

‘Knife: Meditations after an Attempted Murder’, Salman Rushdie, Penguin Random House, 2024.

He doesn’t shy away from the gory details. “Violence came running at me” that day, he recalls. “Blood began to pour out of my neck…There was a deep knife wound in my left hand, which severed all the tendons and most of the nerves [and] deep stab wounds in my neck…and another farther up my face, also on the right”. The “cruellest blow” was the knife in the eye, which went in all the way to the optic nerve, eliminating the possibility of restoring sight. Later in hospital, the eye is described as “hanging down on my face like a large soft-boiled egg”.

It felt, he writes, like a near-death experience without anything supernatural about it. No tunnel of light or a “feeling of rising out of my body”. What occupied his thoughts was the idea that “I would die far away from the people I loved, in the company of strangers”.

Fortunately, due to the heroic actions of others around him, the attack was cut short. What came after was arduous and painful. Hours of surgery and being on a ventilator were followed by days of being poked, prodded and otherwise treated by “Dr Eye, Dr Hand, Dr Stabbings, Dr Slash, Dr Liver, Dr Tongue”. Finally, “I emerged from the long tunnel of hospital visits and was returned to the general population”.

Then came “the rehab of the mind and spirit”. This is the other pole of the book, a tender acknowledgement of the part played by his wife, the poet and visual artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Rushdie writes movingly about their relationship and her unstinting support, as well as of their families, during his convalescence. This makes his memoir a tale “in which hatred – the knife as a metaphor of hate – is answered, and finally overcome, by love”.

The narrative gains resonance with foreshadowing and premonition. During his first meeting with Rachel, for instance, he walked smack into a full-length glass door; blood streamed down his face as he “fell dramatically to the floor”, and she accompanied him home to make sure he was all right. Years later, two nights before the incident at Chautauqua, he has a dream about being attacked by a gladiator. This is reminiscent of a dream about lethal blackbirds that he wrote about in Joseph Anton, his earlier memoir.

Fortunately, the attack doesn’t seem to have diminished his drollery. He says that he was pleased with the amount of weight he lost because of his hospital stint, though “it was not a diet plan to be recommended”. During the process of writing Knife, he realises that it shouldn’t be in the third person, as Joseph Anton had been, because “when somebody wounds you fifteen times it definitely feels very first-person”. That’s an “I” story, he continues, and “also an ‘eye’ story”.

The story is shot through with literary and cultural references. Rushdie recalls attacks on Naguib Mahfouz and Samuel Beckett; works by writers from Franz Kafka to Philip Pullman; and scenes from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. There are moving accounts of last meetings with Martin Amis, conversations with a cancer-diagnosed Paul Auster, and the convalescence of “my younger-brother-in-literature,” Hanif Kureishi.

A bit unexpectedly, he doesn’t mention Hitoshi Igarashi, the slain Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses; William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher who was shot at but survived; and Italian translator Ettore Capriolo, who also survived a knife attack. Presumably, this is because he has already written about them in Joseph Anton.

Charmingly enough, Rushdie also finds inspiration in the career of the Nawab of Pataudi. “I decided that the Tiger would be my role model,” he writes. “If he could face up to the ferocious speed of Hall and Griffith, I should be able to…succeed at being functional as a one-eyed man in a two-eyed world”.

The stark title of this work is not simply a reference to the failed assassin’s blade. For Rushdie, language, too, is a knife capable of cutting open the world to reveal its inner workings, its secrets, and its truths. This is his tool to “remake and reclaim my world”, a task he tackles with gumption and panache.

Also read: Salman Rushdie: ‘Writers Have No Armies’

The purpose of writing Knife, then, is to reckon with the assault and answer violence with art. As a part of this process, he confronts the attacker on the page in a chapter which imagines a conversation with “my Assailant, my would-be Assassin, the Asinine man who made Assumptions about me, and with whom I had a near-lethal Assignation”. However therapeutic, this section fits incongruously into the overall account: though visceral, it is, understandably, more tendentious than the rest.

More to the point, he writes of the dangers of weaponising faiths such as Hinduism and Islam and the important distinction between “private religious faith and public, politicised ideology”. Sadly enough, when he was told of messages of support from the world and its leaders, “India, the country of my birth and my deepest inspiration, on that day found no words”.

There are other changes of tone, during which Rushdie makes sweeping statements about the state of the world: “America torn in two by the radical right, the UK in dreadful disarray, India sinking fast into authoritarianism, freedom everywhere under attack from the bien-pensant left as well as book-banning conservatives…” The power of Knife, in contrast, lies in its personal stories, which resonate more than political commentary.

One of the consequences of the horrific incident was that it turned him again into a writer defined by the fatwa. When his last few books were published, he writes, people finally stopped asking about the attack on The Satanic Verses, but now, “here I am, dragged back into that unwanted subject”. Circumstances have turned him “into a sort of virtuous liberty-loving Barbie doll, Free-Expression Rushdie,” a fate he is determined to make the best of. That, too, is a form of closure.

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.

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