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Knife by Salman Rushdie review: living to tell the tale of being saved by love

Knife is surprisingly upbeat for a book about being stabbed in the head

Knife. Meditations after an Attempted Murder
Knife. Meditations after an Attempted Murder
Author: Salman Rushdie
ISBN-13: 978-1787334793
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £20

On August 12th, 2022, the British author Salman Rushdie was about to speak at a literary event in upstate New York when an attacker stormed the stage and stabbed him 15 times. That he survived this onslaught was thanks in large part to the courageous intervention of several audience members, who managed to subdue the attacker within 30 seconds. And a dose of good fortune: “You’re lucky that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife,” his doctor observed.

The attack happened more than 30 years after the Iranian government issued a religious edict or fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination because it deemed his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, to be blasphemous. Rushdie lost an eye, but lived to tell the tale – quite literally, in this new memoir.

Near death was “an intensely physical experience”, and some of the details are grisly. The stricken eye, dangling from its socket, resembled a soft-boiled egg; Rushdie, who was aged 75 at the time of the attack, was placed on a ventilator, which felt “like having an armadillo’s tail pushed down your throat. And when it was removed it was like having an armadillo’s tail pulled out of your throat.”

His six-week hospitalisation, during which he underwent life-saving surgery and gruelling rehab, was an ordeal: he endured painful, intrusive procedures, and suffered horrible side effects from drug treatments; the hallucinations brought on by strong painkillers were a small upside.


Later on, Rushdie was puzzled to learn that his assailant had arrived at the venue with not just one knife but a whole bagful. “Did he think he might pass them out to the audience and invite them to join in?” The suspect, a young man in his twenties, is currently awaiting trial. Pondering his possible motives, Rushdie breaks off from first-person narration and imagines a series of conversations between himself and his would-be killer. In this fictional vignette, reprising Rushdie’s customary magical realism, the assailant is portrayed as a credulous simpleton whose fanaticism is driven by loneliness and sexual frustration; he was radicalised online, by a YouTube preacher called “Imam Yutubi”.

Knife is surprisingly upbeat for a book about being stabbed in the head. As a lifelong atheist, Rushdie doesn’t believe in miracles as such, but a sense of deep gratitude – to the cosmos, if not a deity – is palpable in these pages. He pays touching tribute to his wife, the poet and novelist Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and expresses thanks for the messages of support he received after the attack: “I have no doubt at all that the love coming toward me – the love of strangers as well as family and friends – did a great deal to help me come through.” This is the soppy lingua franca of traumatised survivors, be they ordinary folk or Booker-winning wordsmiths – because sometimes, the cliche is the mot juste.

Early on in the book, Rushdie insists he doesn’t want these events to define him. For too long, his status as the beleaguered bête noire of religious zealots overshadowed his work as a novelist. “I have no intention of living in that narrative any more,” he declares. At first, he felt little desire to write about the attack, but his agent talked him round, and eventually he became convinced it was necessary – “my way of taking ownership of what happened”. By the end of the memoir, we find him adopting a rather serene, so-be-it attitude to the whole business, leaning into his role as a poster-boy – ‘’A sort of virtuous liberty-loving Barbie doll, Free-Expression Rushdie”.

Knife ends with a brisk recap of the Enlightenment principles which Rushdie holds dear. His 2022 address to a United Nations PEN America gala, in which he railed against the “dishonest narratives” underpinning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is reprinted here. He also calls out the “bigoted revisionism” of right-wing populists from Donald Trump in his adoptive country, the US, to Narendra Modi in the country of his birth, India. He proposes, quite sensibly, that “if we could simply make the distinction between private religious faith and public, politicised ideology, it would be easier to see things as they are and to speak out without worrying about offended sensibilities”.

This is welcome, as far as it goes. On the big, black-and-white questions that separate liberals from outright reactionaries, Rushdie is beyond reproach. But what of the more complex issues – the ones that pit liberals against liberals? One wonders, for example, if Rushdie has a view on US academics being fired from their jobs for expressing opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza. On such questions, he is above the fray. It falls to a new, younger cohort of dissident writers and intellectuals to fight those battles.

Houman Barekat

Houman Barekat, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic and founding editor of the journal Review 31