BY Arun A.K. in Books , Opinion | 24 MAY 24

Salman Rushdie’s ‘KNIFE’ Cuts Beneath the Surface

The author’s latest book on his attempted assassination is a doting memoir about love and the allure of life

BY Arun A.K. in Books , Opinion | 24 MAY 24

Life is ironic. And irony played the angel of death on the morning of 12 August 2022 when it almost took the life of Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, where his lecture on the importance of keeping writers safe from harm was brutally interrupted by an assassination attempt from a knife-wielding man. A few nights before the attack, while sleeping Rushdie’s subconscious was conjuring up images of a man with a spear attacking him in a Roman amphitheatre. A night before the fateful day, when Rushdie was admiring the full moon in the sky, he remembered Georges Melies’s silent film classic Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), in which a spaceship lands on the ‘face’ of the moon wounding its right eye. The next day, Rushdie would lose his own right eye.

Salman Rushdie, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape and Random House

Surviving the nearly fatal attack and its aftermath inspired Rushdie to pen his latest memoir, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder (2024). The reaper has been stalking him ever since 1989, when the former Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a death order against Rushdie and all those involved in the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). The author was subsequently granted police protection by the UK government and endured several failed assassination plots until he moved to the US in 2000. Rushdie had forsaken police protection in America, assuming that he was safe from imminent danger. He would be proven wrong on the Chautauqua stage.

Rushdie structures Knife in two parts: ‘The Angel of Death’ and ‘The Angel of Life’. He refrains from dwelling in self-pity and takes the reader in a matter-of-fact fashion through the grim details of the attack and his subsequent recovery. His signature wit is on display in these passages as he playfully fleshes out the harrowing proceedings. His fondness for free association finds his imagination wandering into literary and filmic territories, drawing references to knives and death. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), where a knight plays a last game of chess against death to stave off for as long as possible the inevitable checkmate, Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) – in which the protagonist is killed with a butcher's knife – and Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), are among the several works he invokes.

Knife invites readers into Rushdie’s personal life and intimate relationships with his wife, the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, his sons Milan and Zafar, his sister Sameen and other family members. He expresses immense gratitude to his and Eliza’s family for helping him navigate his greatest crisis, especially Eliza, whom he eulogizes in one chapter, taking us through their courtship and eventual marriage, noting interestingly that his first encounter with her was marked by a bloody accident, in which he bumped into a sliding glass door. Love sparked as she tended to him. His novelist’s mind sees this as a kind of comic foreshadowing. If you wish to experience love and solidarity, you need to pay for it with your own blood, seems to be the takeaway. Knife occasionally tends to go overboard on the ‘love conquers all’ theme, but Rushdie pulls it back with his dry wit and sarcasm, while recounting his amusing exchanges with doctors and nurses, and his medication-induced bizarre hallucinations. ‘Don’t worry. I’m the champion at draining fluids’, proclaimed a doctor who was tasked with draining the accumulated fluid under Rushdie’s right lung. Rushdie thought, ‘I didn’t know there was a championship? A World Series of fluid draining? A Super Bowl of fluid draining?’

Salman Rushdie attends a presentation of his book Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, 2024, Berlin, Germany. Courtesy: Adam Berry / Stringer / Getty Images

In the final chapter of the first part, ‘Rehab’, Rushdie reflects on his life in linear flashback: adolescence shaped by a tumultuous relationship between his parents; leaving his parents’ home in Bombay for London, years of hostility from different quarters after the Khomeini fatwa; a life of freedom after 2000 in New York; and finally miraculously emerging victorious against death to be released from the hospital on 22 September 2022. The book’s second part marks a homecoming for Rushdie as he and Eliza rebuild their lives piece-by-piece and reconnect with their friends in Manhattan, albeit not without its own share of hardships. On one hand, the bruised writer was getting back on his feet and embracing his new lease of life; on the other hand, some of his closest friends were falling over. Bill Buford, the former editor of Granta magazine, was dealing with long-term heart issues; Paul Auster had lung cancer (and passed away earlier this month); and Martin Amis was dying.

Sardonically, Rushdie dedicates 30 pages to an imagined conversation with his assailant, whom he refers to as ‘A.’ throughout the book. With the conversation circling around God, religion, rationality and gym membership, the section feels a bit contrived and stretched out at times. Together with Rushdie’s sermonizing on the capacity of art and ideas to outlast violence and fascism, the second half of the book tends to unwittingly fall into the didactic trap. Knife has received some criticism for being overly sentimental, especially with Rushdie’s repeated, profuse expressions of admiration for Eliza chapter after chapter. In his defence, here is a man who has had his heart broken multiple times (including four divorces) and miraculously survived an almost-fatal attack. The man is bound to be overflowing with love and gratitude for a loving and caring partner – and for the simple fact of him being alive. I guess Salman Rushdie, for all his glorious contribution to the world of literature, ought to be excused this time for wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Salman Rushdie’s Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder is published by Jonathan Cape (UK), Random House (US)

Main image: Knife on red background (detail), 2016. Courtesy: Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Arun A.K. is a writer and film critic based in Mumbai, India.