Salman Rushdie recounts his attack and recovery in ‘Knife’

Book jacket – Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, By Salman Rushdie. Random House. 209 pp. $28. MUST CREDIT: Random House

“Beauty is its own excuse for Being,” Emerson once wrote. In contrast, an interesting, unusual or disturbing experience is not always its own excuse for a memoir.

The venerable Salman Rushdie is a vibrant and vigorous (if uneven) novelist, but his latest work of autobiography, though occasioned by great suffering, is meandering and frequently trite. And although “Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder” treats a dramatic attempt on Rushdie’s life, it is also surprisingly boring.

It goes without saying that the novelist’s ordeal was harrowing. On Aug. 12, 2022, he found himself in the idyllic town of Chautauqua, N.Y., where he was slated to talk about “the importance of keeping writers safe from harm.” The subject is one he knows all too much about: Since Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, pursuant to the publication of his virtuoso novel “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, the author has been in and out of hiding. It was only in 2000 that he decided to “remake a life of freedom,” as he puts it, in New York City. For 22 years, he lived in the United States unharmed.

But before Rushdie could begin his remarks in Chautauqua, a 24-year-old extremist from New Jersey named Hadi Matar rushed onto the stage and stabbed him repeatedly. His injuries, both physical and psychological, were extensive. “There was the deep knife wound in my left hand, which severed all the tendons and most of the nerves,” he writes in “Knife.” “There were at least two more deep stab wounds in my neck.” Worst of all was the injury to his eye. “The blade went in all the way to the optic nerve, which meant there would be no possibility of saving the vision.”

The road to recovery was tortuous. “In the presence of serious injuries, your body’s privacy ceases to exist,” Rushdie recalls. The self becomes an object for others to prod, poke and manipulate. “One of the knife wounds in my face had damaged the channel by which saliva reached my mouth,” he writes, “and the saliva was oozing out of my cheek. A young doctor came to attend to this.” Other doctors and nurses helped Rushdie use the bathroom; still others drained fluid from a leaky lung.

Fifteen days after his emergency surgery, during which doctors operated on multiple organs simultaneously, he was able to walk again; more than six weeks later, he returned to his home in Manhattan. But even then, he had to undergo physical therapy so as to relearn how to move his hand, and a severed nerve in his neck meant one side of his lower lip was permanently paralyzed.

In the first chapter of the book, Rushdie notes that his assailant, whom he refuses to name, had read very little of his work. “From this we can deduce that, whatever the attack was about, it wasn’t about ‘The Satanic Verses.’ I will try to understand what it was about in this book.”

In one extended sequence about the mental state of his attacker – a fictionalized dialogue between the novelist and the would-be assassin – he makes good on this promise. But this exchange is isolated (and somewhat jarring) in a book that otherwise contains only a handful of well-rehearsed meditations on the plight of persecuted writers – “if you are afraid of the consequences of what you say, then you are not free”; “when religion becomes politicized, even weaponized, then it’s everybody’s business, because of its capacity for harm.”

What, then, is the preponderance of “Knife” about? For the most part, the book is dryly documentary, an unembellished diary. Rushdie blacks out in the hospital; he plots his return to New York, then his journey from hospital to apartment; he enjoys his first significant nonmedical excursion, a Valentine’s Day date with his wife, the accomplished poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Rushdie is a fount of erudite references – he alludes to Henry James, Elias Canetti and John Berryman, among others – but his own writing in “Knife” can veer into cliché. His friends’ supportive words in the wake of the attack were “comforting and strengthening”; when he revisits the site of the incident, he is “making my peace with what had happened, making peace with my life.” On the night he met Griffiths, he “felt like Ali Baba learning the magic words that opened a treasure cave – Open, Sesame – and there, its light dazzling the eye, was the treasure, and it was her.” Most cloyingly of all, he confesses: “I have always believed that love is a force, that in its most potent form it can move mountains. It can change the world.”

On the occasions when Rushdie attempts more experimental sorties, he falters. His halfhearted riffing on the idea and image of the knife does not always land, particularly in the mortifying sequence when the blade narrates its own misdeeds: “Here I am, you bastard … I’ve been waiting for you. You see me? I’m right in front of your face, I’m plunging my assassin sharpness into your neck.”

The best passages in “Knife” probe the emotional fallout of the attack – and double as considerations of brutality more broadly. “The targets of violence experience a crisis in their understanding of the real,” Rushdie writes. An assault like the one he weathered “smashes” the usual niceties. “Reality dissolves and is replaced by the incomprehensible.” Indeed, the motives of Rushdie’s attacker were so thin as to strike him as entirely unreal. Matar reported that he committed his crime because he regarded its victim as “disingenuous.” That would be an “unconvincing motive if one were to use it in crime fiction,” Rushdie wryly remarks. Hence the author’s fascinating choice to imagine a conversation with a more interesting adversary.

But thoughts on violence, reality and fiction are few and far between. For the most part, “Knife” sticks to the facts: the stabbing, the suffering, the recuperation. It is not that Rushdie has no larger points to make: It is only that these points are by now familiar and bear little relevance to the rest of his narrative. He is prone, for instance, to hectoring lectures on in the inanity of younger generations. “Something strange has happened to the idea of privacy in our surreal time,” he complains. “Instead of being cherished, it appears to have become, for many people in the West, especially young people, a valueless quality – actually undesirable. If a thing is not made public, it doesn’t really exist.” Later, he admonishes the “bien-pensant left,” noting that its emphasis on protecting minority rights has eroded “freedom of speech.” He neglects to explain what, if anything, the “bien-pensant left” has to do with his decidedly reactionary attacker. These polemics are not sustained or even germane arguments so much as drive-by scoldings.

Unfortunately, perhaps even unjustly, the most acute agony does not always produce the most profound writing. Raw suffering must be reshaped, renovated into something more than itself. Rushdie’s memories as presented here are as unrefined and muddled as a casual conversation. “Knife” is not worthy of his best work or the pain that occasioned it, though his desire to memorialize his anguish is of course understandable.



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