‘Knife’ review: Salman Rushdie’s answer to violence

Author Salman Rushdie
Author Salman Rushdie


The novelist delivers a brave and stoic book about the gruesome attack he suffered in August 2022.

August 2022. As Salman Rushdie lay on death’s brink after a frenzied attempt on his life by an Islamist maniac, a doctor offered him this weird bit of comfort: “You’re lucky that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife." Two weeks later, the writer’s son observed that many people are stabbed just once and die. And yet, the son told his dad, “you got stabbed like fifteen times and you’re still alive."

“Knife" is Mr. Rushdie’s blow-by-blow account of the attack. At an amphitheater in Chautauqua, in idyllic upstate New York, Mr. Rushdie had arrived to speak on the importance of keeping writers safe from harm. His attacker came at him like “a squat missile," stabbing him in the neck, chest, face, right eye (now blinded) and left hand (his wound a “stigmata," as he calls it). 

Mr. Rushdie was perforated as thoroughly as is possible in 27 seconds, the time his assailant had to complete his kill before being overpowered by members of the audience. “In twenty-seven seconds," he writes, “you can recite the Lord’s Prayer. Or, eschewing religion, you could read aloud one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the one about the summer’s day, perhaps." Mr. Rushdie’s survival was as astonishing as it sounds, and he acknowledges this “miracle" in his book, even though he is—by his own description—a “godless bastard."

Mr. Rushdie has lived under the shadow of impending death since 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the time, ordered his execution for blasphemy in reaction to “The Satanic Verses," a novel by Mr. Rushdie that is regarded by the hair-trigger faithful as insulting to the Prophet Muhammad. Having lived for more than a decade after Khomeini’s fatwa in a variety of safe houses in the U.K., the author moved to New York in 2000, gambling—correctly—that he could lead a freer, more public life in America. 

But Death was always in a corner of his mind—how could it not be? And so, when he saw “this murderous shape rushing toward me" in Chautauqua, his first thought was of Death: “So it’s you. Here you are." His second thought, since he’d cheated Death for all this time, was: “Why now? Really? It’s been so long. Why now, after all these years?"

Mr. Rushdie refuses to name his 24-year-old attacker from New Jersey, and refers to him only as “A." The author spells out the import of this shorthand: “My Assailant, my would-be Assassin, the Asinine man who made Assumptions about me, and with whom I had a near-lethal Assignation . . . I have found myself thinking of him, perhaps forgivably, as an Ass." 

In no place in the book—subtitled “Meditations After an Attempted Murder"—does Mr. Rushdie hide his scorn for A., who said in an interview after his arrest that he hadn’t read more than “a couple pages" of his victim’s writing, and also that he didn’t like Mr. Rushdie because he was “disingenuous" (the assailant’s own, improbably sophisticated, word). Mr. Rushdie imagines himself confronting A. and saying, “you’ll have to come up with a better reason than that."

If A. embodies the banality of evil in the old Arendtian sense, banal, also, was Mr. Rushdie’s reason for electing to go to Chautauqua in the first place. He hadn’t really wanted to be there, but went because he needed the cash. “We had some big domestic bills to pay," he writes. “Our home’s whole air-conditioning system was old, on the edge of breaking down, and needed to be renewed, so the money would be very handy." 

This humdrum impulse delivered him to his assailant, who eluded the threadbare security and entered the venue with not one but a bagful of knives. In a flash of black humor, Mr. Rushdie asks: “Did he think he might pass them out to the audience and invite them to join in?" This jest is close to the bone, the author reports. Members of the crowd had, at first, “thought the attack might be some kind of performance-art stunt intended to highlight the issues of writer safety we had come to discuss."

“Knife" is Mr. Rushdie’s attempt to “answer violence with art." Writing the book, he says, is his way of “owning what had happened . . . refusing to be a mere victim." It is a brave and beautiful book that tells his story with a cathartic relish, no gruesome detail spared. He writes of how his “bulging boiled-egg eye hung out of" his face; how the hospital’s ventilator felt like “having an armadillo’s tail pushed down your throat"; and of the shock of seeing (after his recovery) video clips of himself in his mangled, knife-rent state, of which he’d not been entirely aware, since his wife had allowed no mirrors in his hospital room.

In truth, this book is as much a love letter to his wife—the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths—as it is a punch-back at his assailant. Mr. Rushdie, it is evident, owes his recovery as much to Ms. Griffiths’s fiercely loyal ministrations as he does to the efforts of a phalanx of attending physicians and surgeons. He is 76 years old—75 at the time of his attack—yet his love for his wife is boyish, even pup-like.

If there is a weakness in “Knife"—a false note—it comes when he records “a conversation that never occurred" between himself and A. Here, Mr. Rushdie strays from the steely forensics and elegantly stoical meditations of the rest of the book into a flabby fantasy-world of an imagined encounter that is never really convincing and is often pretentious—as when he quotes Bertrand Russell and Orhan Pamuk at A. (an unschooled man) and receives nothing more than a mystified brush-off in response. “Language," says Mr. Rushdie, is his “knife."

Mr. Rushdie’s “Knife," in truth, is a sort of Occam’s razor—it is best when it is sharp and frank and direct. In his conversation with A., alas, it stoops to dullness. But the rest of the book is so very good that it is easy to look past that error in narrative judgment.

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at NYU Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

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