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Salman Rushdie's ‘Knife’: The aftermath of an attack

Salman Rushdie’s ‘Knife’ turns the tables on perpetrators of violence, and reclaims power for writers, who are creators of worlds

Salman Rushdie and Rachel Eliza Griffiths in London, July 2023. (Getty Images)

By Somak Ghoshal

LAST PUBLISHED 28.04.2024  |  04:15 PM IST

Salman Rushdie’s new book, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, hinges on the vicious knife attack he survived on 12 August 2022 in Chautauqua, upstate New York. But it’s much more than a straightforward memoir. In the writer’s words, this is a book about “The Knife as an idea," not just a weapon that has been used to silence writers and artists who speak truth to power. Throughout Knife, Rushdie gives us a roll call of distinguished figures, including Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who had been victims of knife attacks. Rushdie’s wry humour, when it cuts through his uncharacteristically sentimental voice in this book, manages to turn this fatal instrument of harm into a metaphor for cultural vivisection.

“Language, too, was a knife," as he explains halfway along the book. “It could cut open the world and reveal its meaning, its inner workings, its secrets, its truths. It could cut through from one reality to another. It could call bullshit, open people’s eyes, create beauty. Language was my knife." This is a classic Rushdie stunt, where the tables are turned on the perpetrator, and power is wrested back from the destroyer, the murderer, and reclaimed by the writer, who is a creator of worlds.

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Read within the context of Rushdie’s horrific near-death experience, this passage hits us with its brute force. Yet, as a general statement, it is essentially an elaboration of the well-known proverb, “The pen is mightier than the sword." In Rushdie’s version of his brush with death, he is the hero who overcomes his assailant’s clumsy attempt to kill him, and lives to tell the tale. Like mythographer Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey", the writer’s arduous trek from the land of near-death to the land of recovery is charted through a clear structure.

Rushdie’s life immediately before the attack is one of unalloyed happiness, with his discovery of the great love of his life, his current wife, writer and poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Their chance encounter, budding romance and eventual marriage are the stuff of Hollywood romcoms. But it would be rather mean to begrudge a 75-year-old writer, who’s been living in exile for the better part of his life with a death sentence hanging over his head, this long-awaited moment of headiness. “What we have is the greatest story, which is love," is a sentiment that runs through the book, expressed in different words in different scenarios. You can’t blame Rushdie fans for doing a double take on reading these bits.

The complication, following Campbell’s framework, appears in the form of “the A" (the assassin, who Rushdie rechristens as “the Ass", among other colourful monikers, before shortening it to “the A"), the evil force who disrupts the bower of bliss. But, in the end, the victim fights back and revives, through superhuman effort and the care of loving friends and family, to reclaim his honour and pride of place in the world. In this version of the narrative, there is a certain sense of grandeur, often bordering on pomp, a desire to make deeper meanings out of everything that happened before and after the attack. Then again, this isn’t the old Rushdie with the bite we once knew. “No matter what I’ve already written or may now write, I’ll always be the guy who got knifed," says this sadder and wiser writer-knight.

To give credit where it’s due, Knife is visceral, wrenching, and unsparing in its depiction of the body in pain and the stages of its tortuous recovery. Many of its passages are not for the faint-hearted, especially since Rushdie himself, who has been anything but squeamish, stops short of elaborating on the experience of having his right eyelid sewn shut. This is the same man who wrote in chilling detail about Pampa Kampana, the protagonist of his last novel The Victory City, having her eyes gouged out by her enemies.

Front cover of the book.

Of course, writing that scene in The Victory Citypredates the attack on Rushdie at Chautauqua, where he had, ironically, gone to speak on the City of Asylum Pittsburgh project, “which offers refuge to a number of writers whose safety is at risk in their own countries". As he gets on the stage to give his talk, Rushdie is feeling hopeful on several counts. As a man with a fatwa on his head, issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses, he had gone unharmed for over three decades. He has lived under severe security restrictions in the UK for years, before taking the daring plunge to move to New York, where he chose to build a freer life, without a retinue of bodyguards trailing him everywhere. In exile, he had found friends, both old and new. (Many of them, from fellow writer Martin Amis to editor Bill Buford, find mention in Knife, in the context of their death or failing health, thickening the miasma of mortality.)

Yet, as Knife also reveals, the undercurrent of violence and threat of physical harm have never left the Rushdie’s side or, for that matter, his consciousness. Even as he was living as a “free" man in the US, he mentions recurring nightmares of destruction, especially one that he had days before travelling to Chautauqua. “I had a dream about being attacked by a man with a spear, a gladiator in a Roman amphitheatre. There was an audience roaring for my blood. I was rolling about on the ground trying to elude the gladiator’s downward thrusts, and screaming." We don’t need a psychoanalyst to decode this dream or the premonition that follows on the evening before the fateful event, as Rushdie looks up at the moon during a stroll.

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In the aftermath of the actual “event"—which ends with Rushdie being airlifted to a hospital, undergoing a long and risky surgery to fix his liver, small intestine, one arm and, unsuccessfully, his right eye, and then spend weeks in rehab—the experience of being alive is one of a miracle. But it’s not as uncomplicated as it sounds. For an avowed atheist like Rushdie, coming to terms with his Great Escape from The Angel of Death is a tough act. The paradox in the situation isn’t lost on him.

“I…wanted to think about… the irruption of the miraculous into the life of someone who didn’t believe that the miraculous existed, but who nevertheless had spent a lifetime creating imaginary worlds in which it did," Rushdie writes. “The miraculous—as well as the A. and his victim—had crossed a state line. It had travelled from Fiction into Fact."

As a commentary on Rushdie’s life and work, the linkages between the two, it may have been wiser to leave it to the intelligent reader to arrive at this conclusion. But a man who’s returned from the jaws of death gets to enjoy a wide berth. The statement lacks Rushdie’s sardonic bite or his gift of masking vulnerability with self-deprecation. Instead, it see-saws between raw emotion and the grandiosity of the late Henry James, who wrote Prefaces to his own novels. But this tendency to slip from reflection into self-regard is perhaps an obvious outcome of a book like Knife.

As Rushdie says early on, “The journey across the frontier from Poetryland into Proseville often seemed to go through Memoiristan," leaving us in no doubt about what to expect. Before Knife, Rushdie had tread on the terrain of Memoiristan with Joseph Anton. But that earlier work wasn’t triggered by a life-threatening calamity. The Rushdie that spoke to us in Joseph Anton is not the Rushdie we meet in Knife. This is a sadder and wiser man, grappling with the aftershocks of an incident that has become a watershed moment in his life and career, leaving him with questions that probably only fiction can answer: “What would it mean to be happy in the aftermath of an attempted murder?"

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.