Knife by Salman Rushdie review: only a novelist could write like this about being stabbed


This is a book, says Salman Rushdie, that he’d much rather not have needed to write. And no wonder. It’s an account of the 27-second attack on him by a young Lebanese-American Islamist on August 12, 2022, which very nearly killed him. The attacker stabbed him repeatedly, in the neck, liver, chest, eye. His right eye is gone forever. Knife is dedicated to those who saved his life.

Yet it’s not, of course, just an account of the attack itself, at a festival at Chautauqua Institution near Buffalo to celebrate — hah — a safe refuge for writers under threat. But that is terrifying in its vivid detail.

I see each step of his headlong run. I watch myself coming to my feet and turning toward him… I raise my left hand in self-defence. He plunges the knife into it. After that there are many blows, to my neck, to my chest, to my eye, everywhere. I feel my legs give way and I fall.”

But it’s the processing of the event by a writer like Rushdie which makes the book. It’s an account of the physical event; the aftermath; his vexed regret for his ruined Ralph Lauren suit; the struggle to save his life — a retired fireman in the audience he calls Thumb puts that digit on the artery spurting blood and stops him dying right there; then the gradual, pathetic process of treatment and therapy; the reaction of his newish wife, Eliza and his family. (I could have done without the soppy chapter on his relationship with Eliza, but that’s just me.) And then there’s the coming to terms with the physical indignities of treatment (the catheter!) and the gradual processing of what happened into a novelist’s, this novelist’s, take on the world.

The most obvious reader’s reaction to the attack, which naturally Rushdie shares, is, “where the hell was security?” The nice folks at Chautauqua somehow didn’t register, as Rushdie did, that a novelist who had for 33 years lived with Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa after the publication of The Satanic Verses, needed protection.

Rushdie imagines an interview, where he attempts to engage with this young man’s experience

But that earlier event meant he was able to understand what was happening to him better than those around him. “So my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing toward me was: So it’s you. Here you are… This was my second thought: Why now? Really? It’s been so long. Surely the world had moved on… Yet here, approaching fast, was a sort of time traveller, a murderous ghost from the past.” He never dignifies him by name. He calls him A, “my would-be Assassin, the Asinine Man who made Assumptions about me… I have found myself thinking of him as an Ass”.

Now that’s good. To turn your would-be murderer into a parlour game of appropriate words beginning with A is a small triumph; as ever, there’s no keeping down Rushdie’s humour, and willingness to show off. Weirdly, he had premonitions about the attack. Two nights before the attack he dreamt he was being attacked by a gladiator with a spear. He didn’t want to go but the tickets had been sold and he needed the money.

How close he came to death! As one doctor at the trauma centre at the hospital told him “You know what you’re lucky about? You’re lucky that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill with a knife”. The blade came within a milimietre of destroying his brain. Now his whole life is a second chance: “pure gravy”, he says, quoting Chandler.

The attack brings back bad memories of his earlier ordeal after the fatwa — and it’s evident he’s still sore about the criticism he encountered then by those who should have known better. This time it’s different. The world has changed and there’s solidarity with him now. “Maybe now”, he says, seeing the love, “people like me a little bit.”

It’s fascinating seeing how a novelist processes the world: he interprets his experience constantly in terms of others’ works, chiefly other novelists’. So, when he looks out at the moon the night before his attack, his free associations include George Méliès’ silent film, Le Voyage dans la Lune, where the spaceship pierces the Man in the Moon’s eye presciently. When he talks about his yearning to return home, it’s in terms of Mole’s homesickness in The Wind in the Willows. Art is a way of making sense of experience.

Rushdie considers, then rejects, meeting A himself. Instead he opts for the more satisfactory option of an imaginary interview, where he attempts to engage with this young man’s experience: the visit to his father in Lebanon when he was 19 was, speculates Rushdie, a way of entering a man’s world. He has a name for the online extremists the young man encountered in four years of isolation: Imam Youtubi. But at the end, his feeling for A is not hate but contempt.

What’s clear is that writing the book is necessary for Rushdie: “I understand that I had to write the book you’re reading now before I could move onto anything else. To write would be my way of owning what had happened, taking charge of it, making it mine, refusing to be a mere victim. I would answer violence with art”.

And so he has. The attack hasn’t made him different from what he was; he still doesn’t believe in God and regards religion in terms of man’s need for ethics, but he does recognise that he is more influenced by the Christian culture of Rugby school and Britain than he had previously acknowledged. Indeed that sensibility may go deeper than he thinks.

Physically he’s doing well. Losing an eye means that he has to take care pouring water into a glass, but his role model is the great cricketer, Mansoor Ali Khan, who lost an eye but still captained India. Morally, he’s ready to fight the good fight, against Trump, Brexit, the BJP: if Fortune has turned him into “Free expression Barbie Doll Rushdie”, he’s fine with that.

This is a brave book by a brave man. Bravo, Salman Rushdie.

Knife is published by Jonathan Cape (£20, out now)

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist