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Salman Rushdie: ‘The first thing that comes into my mind each morning is: I don’t have my right eye’

The novelist explains why he chose not to talk to his would-be murderer, and what he discovered about himself when a fatwa was issued against him

The bookshelf in the meeting room of The Wylie Agency in midtown Manhattan is brimming with neatly stacked classics and lush photographic publications and among them sits a gorgeous run of early editions of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. It was published in 1988: the lost era of ripped jeans, Guns N’ Roses running amok in the charts, Blind Date on the box and Rain Man in the cinemas.

The very first line of that novel reads: “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.’” Given that Rushdie will at any moment arrive in this room to talk about his latest book Knife, an intense exploration of the vicious and senseless stabbing he suffered in August 2022, it feels like an apt sentence. A combined miracle of Rushdie’s fortitude, the bravery of those who rushed to his assistance and medical expertise meant that Rushdie survived. But it was a close run thing, and his injuries were life changing.

Knife opens with a quote from Samuel Beckett: “We are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday.” Curiously, Beckett was himself stabbed, in January 1938 after a random street encounter in Paris with, as it turned out, a pimp who went by the name of Prudent. In attending the trial, Beckett asked his assailant why he had used the knife. Reading of that experience helped Rushdie to answer a question he had been turning over in his mind ever since. Should he meet his would-be murderer?

“I had a kind of urge to go meet him,” he confesses at one point.


“A kind of journalistic urge to sit in the room and ask him questions. Eliza [Rushdie’s wife] was very against it. And I am sure his lawyers would deny it. Then, I had read about the attack on Samuel Beckett. And when Beckett confronted his attacker in court, all he got back was: ‘Je ne sais pas, monsieur. Je m’excuse.’ How do you answer that? That’s not helpful at all. And I thought if I were to actually meet this guy I would get some banality or cliche and it wouldn’t help. And I thought it was better to maybe use my skill, which is imagination and storytelling, to try to get inside his head.”

Rushdie is 76 years old: a knight of the realm, critically garlanded, commercially successful, a high-plains drifter in Nobel country and one of the great survivors of a noisy, glamorous era of book publishing. But socially he is far from the grandee, retaining a youthful vitality, and is warm company, pushing conversation towards humour when possible. He arrives with Andrew Wylie, the agent with a phenomenal client list and a fearsome reputation. Easy laughter announces the pair as they make their way up the corridor and Rushdie appears wearing a rain jacket, a scarf and a tote bag slung over his shoulder, like a man headed to the market on an April morning of turbulent Manhattan weather. Wylie moves nimbly, offering a brief hello, ensuring Rushdie has a cup of warmed water he has requested for his vocal cords and then vanishing. The pair have been friends for decades and, if anything, the trauma of the past couple of years has deepened that.

“Well Andrew, I mean I said to him – humorously – that this is my longest relationship. It is much longer than any of my marriages. He became my agent in, let me see ... 1986. And there was a point when we went out to dinner to celebrate our 30th anniversary. And that’s already eight years ago. Yes, he’s my agent and he’s the best agent in the business and so on. But he is also now one of my very, very closest friends and has been an incredible ally to me.

“At the time of the fatwa, when people, including many publishers, were running scared in all kinds of directions, Andrew more or less single-handedly saved the publication of the book [The Satanic Verses] in country after country after country. He made sure it was published when publishers were getting ... terrified. And here at the Wylie agency, he took no security precautions. He behaved unafraid and that showed people not to be scared.”

That’s more than an idle observation. One of the underlying themes of Knife is the passage of time. Rushdie has lived, through little choice of his own, an intense and heated sort of fame that seldom visits novelists. As his friend Martin Amis drolly observed after the fatwa caused a sensation across the world, Rushdie had “vanished into the front page”.

It’s almost impossible for anyone not old enough to remember to fully comprehend the storm created by objections to The Satanic Verses, with riots and burnings in multiple cities preceding the death order issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khamenei on Valentine’s Day 1989. It caused a sensation. If nothing else, it was monstrously unfair, pitting all of Islam against a writer who believed he’d written a book about immigrant London. But more than one commentator felt that Rushdie had brought it on himself – and all are roll-called in Knife.

Khamenei died in June 1989. The mores of the world changed in the years since. The fatwa followed Rushdie through the decades but it had long paled in the public imagination and reached the point where even he could poke fun at it by appearing on Curb Your Enthusiasm to console Larry David in an episode in which the television star is issued with a fatwa.

But: the order had never been revoked. The echo of that threat, which once reverberated through the continents, never fully left Rushdie’s mind. Would it yours? And so, on a sublime summer morning, August 12th, 2022, it seemed as if someone had answered the ayatollah’s call. Rushdie was in Chautauqua, in upstate New York to support the City of Pittsburgh Asylum project, organised by his friends Henry Reese and Diane Samuels. The theme of the weekend was More Than Shelter: Redefining the American Home, and Rushdie’s task was to speak about the sanctuary America had proven to be for him.

He had just been introduced, raising an arm to receive a warm applause when he noticed, from the periphery of his vision (“the last thing my right eye would ever see”, he writes) a figure running at him with speed. “Black clothes, black face mask .... a squat missile. I got to my feet and watched him come. I didn’t try to run. I was transfixed.”

As Rushdie rose to his feet to meet his attacker, some part of him understood that this was the fatwa materialising, as in darker moments he feared it would, from the crowd in a public gathering place: “So my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing towards me was: So it’s you. Here you are.”

His assailant was Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old from New Jersey who hatched his plan after noticing a tweet advertising Rushdie’s visit to Chautauqua, and he made his way there to sleep on the grass near the amphitheatre overnight. Matar has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault. He had not been born when The Satanic Verses was published and in a newspaper interview admitted he had read only two pages of the book. He could offer scant reason for wishing death to the writer except that he had gleaned enough from YouTube videos to decide that he was not “a good person” as he had “attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs”. So more than three decades after Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, this moment arrived. Rushdie pauses when asked if he published the same book now, in 2024, would it provoke the same trail of trouble and violence that has followed it since 1989?

“I don’t know the answer. What I know is, if before the publication of The Satanic Verses, I had been told: the following things are going to happen to you, I would not have bet on myself to be okay. You know? I would have thought, you know ... F**k! Sometimes as human beings we don’t know how we would react in extreme circumstances until we find ourselves in them. We don’t know the answer to the question until it is asked. And I think one of the things I think I discovered about myself, which surprises me, is that I’m pretty tough.”

He is more than entitled to say that. He never turned his back on his assailant, but Rushdie gives himself a hard time on the page for not responding to the attack.

“Yeah, I know, I know. What everybody says to me, including my wife and children is: ‘he was 24 and carrying a knife. You were 75.’ And I wasn’t expecting it. And he came at me very fast. The weird thing is that I never saw the knife. And I have no idea what it looks like.”

The frenzied knife attack is a well-worn trope in popular culture, from that Hitchcock scene through to the slew of imitative slasher movies. But the theatrical gore of movies serves to shield the audience from the truly horrific damage a knife can cause. The gruesome intimacy of being the wrong end of a knife attack is presented by Rushdie with unflinching candour.

It was an assassination attempt: the premeditated killing of an important public figure. Matar was cunning in his planning in that he was able to reach his intended victim unimpeded. But he used the knife with the wild, ill-disciplined swings of an amateur. One of the surgeons later told Rushdie that he was lucky that his attacker had no idea how to use a knife. Still, Rushdie endured a shocking litany of injuries. He put his left hand up and the first knife swipe plunged into it, severing all tendons and most nerves. Two deep stab wounds to the neck, several to his face, his chest, his thigh, and a wound along the left side of his mouth followed before the knife blade finally penetrated his right eye, deeply, all the way into the optic nerve.

“He hit me very, very hard on the point of the jaw, just below it. And I remember thinking: he has broken my jaw. I didn’t realise he had a weapon in his hand until I saw blood. He was just slashing away. Some of it was slashing. Some of it was stabbing. He was just going for whatever he could get at. But there was a very big cut just across here and it is a miracle he didn’t hit some kind of artery,” he says, drawing a line with his finger across his neck.

“Then there was the stab wound here. And this. And all over the place. He thought he had killed me. When he rather unwisely gave that interview to the New York Post from jail, he said he was surprised that I was still alive. And so was I.”

It took 27 seconds. Long enough, Rushdie notes, to read the Lord’s Prayer or one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and filled with an exceptional intensity of experience. It seems almost voyeuristic asking Rushdie to take himself back to that amphitheatre. But it is where the book Knife begins: the starting point to two years that have necessitated a significantly altered living experience but also resurrected many of the fears and concerns that he weathered through the years of the fatwa.

Many pages of Knife are devoted to the physical and psychological trials of a near-death experience. Even as he lay in a pool of his own blood, some automatic part of Rushdie was somehow gathering notes that he presumed he would never use as he believed he was dying.

“One of the things I felt about this whole experience, ever since the attack, is how physical it has been. My awareness of and connectedness to my body and its problems has probably been more intense than at any point in my life. I have had to think about my physical existence very profoundly. And even as I try to say at that moment of near death, it felt like it was my body I am thinking about. It didn’t feel spiritual. It didn’t feel magical. It felt, like, physical. No heavenly choir. No fires of hell. None of that.”

Instead, he writes, what he felt “most strongly was a profound loneliness. I would never see Eliza again. I would never see my sons again, or my sister, or her daughters”.

This is all within the first 16 pages, which are so gripping that it is easy for the reader to forget to exhale. But four pages later comes the first intimation of the playfulness or humour which has always been part of Rushdie’s voice. That, at least, came through unscathed. The exhaustion, pain and humiliations of recuperation are described with unflinching clarity. So too is the permanent change he has been forced to accept. Rushdie always wore glasses: now the right lense is shaded. “And the first thing that comes into my mind each morning is: I don’t have my right eye.” The knife wound to his mouth has changed his word formation when speaking. His body bears many scars.

As he pieced together the before and after, he would describe August 11th, the eve of the attack, as “my last innocent evening”. He recalls that two nights before the attack, he had experienced a disturbing dream featuring a gladiator and a slain victim, from which he’d emerged roaring. He dwelt upon the fact that his novel Shalimar the Clown had originated from a single imperishable image of a dead man on the ground while another stands over him wielding a knife. “When I think about that now, I’m shaken. I don’t usually think of my books as prophecies,” he writes.

“I’ve had some trouble with prophets in my life, and I’m not applying for the job.”

But the book is also an unexpected love letter and contains much joy and laughter. Through the violence and damage came a biblical flood of love. Before the attack, few people knew of Rushdie’s marriage to Rachel Eliza Griffiths, an American poet he met at a party in 2018. He is 30 years her senior and believed his days of romantic love were behind him. But they struck up a conversation in the rooftop bar and Rushdie has a good time poking fun at himself as he recounts his initial wooing. He was so transfixed that in following Griffiths outside, he walked into a glass door, busted his nose, and almost knocked himself out. He was a bloody mess. Griffiths insisted on escorting him home in a taxi. They talked all night. They’ve been together since.

Rushdie was such a popular figure – a celebrity – that his private life, which was never dull, had been considered fair game. He was married four times before and has two sons: Zafar, with his first wife Clarissa Luard, and Milan, with Elizabeth West. Griffiths and he decided to become “private people” and New York allowed that.

“Yeah, New York is good at that. Oh, there’s Al Pacino. Okay! Everybody is on the street in New York. You walk around the Village, and you see David Byrne on a bicycle. And people are good at giving you your space. It has changed a little bit since we have entered the age of the selfie. People will come up and ask for a selfie. And people would never have come up and asked for an autograph. It is a bit easier now that everyone has a camera.” Once again, the forked lightning of world headlines visited him and for a while, the paparazzi and madness returned like it was 1989 all over again.

Three cities have shaped Rushdie. He spent his childhood in Bombay, as he prefers to call his native city (officially renamed Mumbai), before going to England to attend boarding school at Rugby. He spent his formative years in London, working as an advertising copywriter; he conjured up the famous campaign for Aero chocolate (“It’s Irresisistibubble”) while trying to make his way as a serious writer.

An encounter with EM Forster at Cambridge, where he studied history, acted as a sort of life swerve because the novelist had treated him generously and told him that he believed the great English Indian novel would be written by someone from India. On Friday nights, Rushdie came home, took a bath, put on a fresh shirt, and wrote while, it seemed, all of London was on the town. “I felt I had to wash the stink of capitalism off me,” he laughs now. He was concocting something bold and in the noisy, irreverent voice of his native city, the novel that became Midnight’s Children. Its success – the Booker Prize (1981, and the Best of the Booker in 2008) catapulted him from 10 years of nowhere to everywhere, all at once, which must have been a disconcerting experience in itself.

“I thought: I think this is a pretty good book, but I had no way of knowing if anyone else would agree. Fortunately, they did. I don’t know what happens to other people. What happened to me was just an enormous sense of relief. A sense of, okay, I can actually do the thing I actually want to do, and I am not just going to fail at it.”

But the book, you argue, would have contained the same quality even if it had not gone stratospheric: many a splendid novel has lain in obscurity.

“I know. But it took me five years to write. And if it had failed ... I mean, I knew it was going to be a Hollywood-or-bust book. Put everything in it. And go for broke. And fortunately, it worked out. But if it hadn’t, I’d have been broke.”

He shrugs when asked if he might have stopped writing if Midnight’s Children had disappeared. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I remember thinking: give it the biggest shot you can think of and then see what happens.”

Almost everything that could happen did. For such distressing subject matter, there is something heartening at the epicentre of Knife. Rushdie had his moments of anger over the course of his recovery, but he never concedes to bitterness. Writing this reflection was a chance to thank his family and there’s a beautiful tribute to Amis, who died in May 2023 and who gave the world a fizzing, wickedly funny body of work. If anything, Rushdie’s close encounter with death served to reaffirm the questions that have vexed him: religion and faith. His writing has been a contradiction in that he is a confirmed atheist whose pages are filled with the gods and divinity and wilful magic.

“I know, because we invented them all to explain things. And they still help. But I have always felt that the fable and its related forms are sometimes a more powerful way of reaching the truth about human beings than so-called realism. I also think that the world has become so f**king strange that realism doesn’t seem to have the tools to describe it. The world has become surrealist. The world contains political figures who think that a good idea might be to release a nuclear bomb in a hurricane in order to divert it. Seriously proposing that! If I was to write that in a story, a publisher might say, that’s a little over the top.”

Rushdie’s voice is beginning to fade a little now and the honeyed water is all but finished. But one final matter. His attacker is never once named in Knife. He is referred to only as “The A”.

“I remember back in the day Margaret Thatcher talking about the IRA and denying them ‘the oxygen of publicity’,” he says. “That phrase kind of stuck in my head and I thought, well, I want to deny him the oxygen of publicity. He had his 27 seconds of fame and now he can go back to being nobody.”

But he does give his attacker a voice. An entire section of the book contains an imaginary conversation between Rushdie and his assailant.

“It’s one of the things that’s a question mark in my head. The reason I want to dig into that conversation is that I think there is a kind of mystery about him. Which is that: here’s somebody very young. No criminal record. Not on any watch list. Nothing. A regular guy and he goes from that to murder. In one go. Now, murder is a colossal thing to undertake. Cold blooded, premeditated murder. Not anger. And then that the person he chooses to murder is somebody about whom by his own admission he knows almost nothing. It’s a writer he hasn’t read. He has seen a couple of YouTube videos. That’s it. And I said to my editor, Andy Ward at Random House: if I wrote a story in which somebody committed a murder for such small reasons, you would tell me it is not convincing. So, I thought: there is a thing there beyond what he said and what we know.”

In the end, Rushdie did what he has always done to figure it out. He returned to the page and wrote through the humid summer and cooling autumn in New York City. And then he sent the story out into the world.

“One of the things, I think, maybe as a final thing to say, is that the book is called Knife because it is about a knife attack. But also: the book is a knife. The book is my knife. I got caught up in a knife fight. And I needed a weapon of my own.”

Knife. Meditations After an Attempted Murder by Salman Rushdie is published by Jonathan Cape