Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, by Salman Rushdie (Penguin Random House, 244 pp., $28)

The history of literature is strewn with vain and irascible men who could have used a great comeuppance. Remarkably, no one stabbed D. H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, Norman Mailer (who himself punctured his second wife), or Gore Vidal. In our cold and crooked universe, the dagger came out instead for mild, humane, ironic Salman Rushdie.

It is a rare type who can turn to even modest advantage the trauma of being hacked nearly to death by an Islamist madman. Rushdie has done so with grace and humor in his nonetheless flawed new book, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder.

On August 12, 2022, a young Muslim man rushed a stage in Chautauqua, New York, and spent a harrowing 27 seconds with Rushdie, gashing and goring him, before being subdued. One swing destroyed Rushdie’s right eye. Others cut across his neck and face, through his hand, and into his chest, his gut, and his leg. Rushdie spent six weeks in the hospital. Early on, he writes, “my bulging boiled-egg eye hung out of my face, the iris improbably perched on the swollen white at an impossible angle.” Later, “the scars made my torso look like a subway map.” He was saved, a doctor said, only by the assailant’s shoddy bladework. The would-be assassin’s incompetence was a surprise. That he had appeared was not.

“So, it’s you,” Rushdie thought, as fanaticism’s emissary arrived at last, more than 30 years after the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the novelist’s death for having written The Satanic Verses, which questions Muhammad’s infallibility in receiving the verses of the Quran. The book sparked demonstrations in London at which Rushdie was burned in effigy. Several people were killed during protests in Pakistan and India. The book’s Japanese translator was murdered. Rushdie spent a decade in hiding. The entire imbroglio was built on the odious notion that Islam shall not be questioned or challenged, and that any public figure who “offends” it, intentionally or otherwise, should fear for his safety. (Had he wanted to insult Muslims, Rushdie protests, he could easily have done so without spending five years painstakingly constructing a 600-page work of fiction.)

Rushdie resents being known primarily for the Ayatollah’s fatwa; he’d rather be known for his novels. These are lengthy, prismatic, often absurd stories furnished with great plumes of characters. Knife is not that. For those who prefer it when writers, however brilliant, get to the point, Rushdie has finally delivered. This new book is short, clear, and intimate. At its center is an account of the attack and a diary of the author’s recovery. When it stays this course, it is excellent. The (at first literal) blow-by-blow of the dark day in Chautauqua is vivid and gripping. The recounting of Rushdie’s slow and arduous rehabilitation is frank, engaging, and quietly inspirational. At its best, this is a tale of survival and endurance. “Live. Live,” is the book’s oft-stated axiom.

After the attack, nothing came easily. Rushdie shares the gruesome details of everything from having an eye stitched closed to having a catheter inserted. His body leaks fluids like a barrel full of bullet holes. He gradually and painfully relearns to use his left hand. He suffers infections and a cancer scare. His blood pressure collapses, then explodes. He has ghastly nightmares. Throughout the narrative, however, Rushdie remains his bright, witty self, jesting about, for example, the first hours after the assault (“There were people sitting in my room. Five, maybe six people. I wasn’t good with numbers just then”), the indignities of close medical supervision (“hospitals really don’t like it when your bowels are not moving”), and his discharge from the ICU (“Dr. Eye, Dr. Hand, Dr. Stabbings, Dr. Slash, Dr. Liver, Dr. Tongue—all began to sign off”). He ponders the abiding mysteries of what occurred with sardonic amusement. Why did the would-be killer bring a bag of knives with him? “Did he think he might pass them out to the audience and invite them to join in?”

It’s a relief that Rushdie seldom drifts from poring over his ordeal, because nothing else in the book really works. His musings on art, love, death, and human nature are spotty: he serves up clanging clichés and fortune-cookie wisdom (“we would not be who we are today without the calamities of our yesterdays”). One chapter records how Rushdie met, courted, and married the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths—a matter that loses all romance when retold to the reader, who keeps remembering that this is a man in his seventies, falling for a woman 30 years his junior, who becomes his fifth wife. And all that can be said of a 30-page, imagined “interview” between Rushdie and the attacker is that the entire exchange is confoundingly odd.

Rushdie’s knee-jerk leftism is a distraction. He reflects that his “own anger faded” when he contemplated climate change—“it felt trivial when set beside the anger of the planet.” Nor should anyone feel altogether content, Rushdie believes, in a world filled with refugees, hunger, thirst, and—worst of all—conservatives. That America is “torn in two” is entirely their fault. They “lie,” “abuse,” and “denigrate.” Their “agenda” is “authoritarianism.” Because of them, “America is sliding back toward the Middle Ages.” Rushdie’s life has been repeatedly upended by Islamic extremism, but you get the sense that, despite (or because of) that experience, he feels safer (so to say) kicking Brexit voters, Trump yard-sign owners, and the Christian Right.

The subtitle of this memoir is correct: it is a meditation. It is not a manifesto, a polemic, or a cri de coeur. Rushdie flinches at the prospect of being seen as a “liberty-loving barbie doll, Free-Expression Rushdie.” If it’s this book he thinks will create that problem, he needn’t worry. It has its moments, primarily when Rushdie declares that “the first lesson of free expression” is that “you must take it for granted.” (“If you are afraid of the consequences of what you say,” he explains, “you are not free.”) But Rushdie no longer cares to defend himself, and his book by extension has little to say about free speech more broadly.

In his own memoir, Christopher Hitchens called the fatwa a “root-and-branch challenge to the values of the Enlightenment.” Standing up for Rushdie was, in his view, a straightforward matter of “defending free expression from barbarism.” “I felt then as I felt now,” Hitchens said in 2010: “that this was a test.” A test of whether Western institutions could withstand the maniacal petulance of the “grievance-privileged Islamist mentality,” with its toxic mix of “self-righteousness” and “self-pity.” A test of whether Western intellectuals could uphold their putative values in the face of “a fanatical religion, which makes absolutist claims for itself,” yet “regards itself as so pure as to be above criticism.”

Sound familiar? Today, at our universities, pro-Palestinian students—some of them Islamist-adjacent, if we’re being honest—exploit liberal principles, the better to hollow out the liberal system they plainly despise. They use intimidation and violence to achieve their ends, then claim that the mere words of their critics threaten their safety. They disrupt events, menace and harass professors, and oppress their Jewish classmates, often while claiming for themselves illiberal privileges (such as the right to co-opt and lecture an unwilling audience) that they would never extend to others. Here it is again: the contest between civilization and its enemies. Will we grant zealots special treatment? Will we narrow our freedoms to accommodate thuggery? These are the questions. (And no, wrote Hitchens—that the “mobocracy [i]s composed mainly of people with brown skins” ought to make “no difference.”)

Aside from his false equivalences about “the weaponization of Christianity,” Rushdie tends not to frame things in such stark terms. No shame there. “Living was my victory,” he submits, and he’s right. Knife marks (one hopes) the denouement of his long encounter with outraged, witless fundamentalism. In that regard, his race (one prays) is run. But his name will remain a byword for resistance to close-minded certainty, and the struggle against savage radicalism will continue, with or without him.

Photo By STORMI GREENER/Star Tribune via Getty Images


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