Knife: Meditations after an Attempted Murder

Subhash Ghimire

Salman Rushdie’s freshly released autobiographical memoir Knife: Meditations after an Attempted Murder, is now causing a stir in the world of literature. In April 2024, I finished reading Rushdie’s 2012 autobiographical book, Joseph Anton. While fat Anton has 656 pages, and is written in the third person perspective, Knife has 209 pages, and is written in the first person perspective. In order to convey his post-fatwa bewilderment, Rushdie writes about his experiences in Anton in the third person, as if the horror was happening to someone else. However, Rushdie says that Knife is an I-story as well as an eye-story because the attack claimed his right eye. “When somebody wounds you 15 times, that feels very much first person,” he explains, citing the reason for writing it in the first person.

As he lay on the floor, watching blood pool around him, Rushdie thought he was going to die. Among the people who saved him that fateful day was a retired firefighter, who pressed a thumb against his neck to stop the flow of blood. Rushdie’s clothes were cut off him. His legs were raised to keep the blood flowing to his heart. He remembers feeling humiliated. “In the presence of serious injuries, your body’s privacy ceases to exist,” he writes.

After buying Knife authored by this controversial and famous writer of The Satanic Verses I finished reading it without taking any break other than the time I had to set aside for meals and snacks. Knife completely captivated me from start to finish. Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish author, states, “To read well is not to pass one’s eyes and one’s mind slowly and carefully over a text: it is to immerse oneself utterly in its soul. This is why we fall in love with only a few books in a lifetime.” Author Flaubert from France once said, “If a man were to read ten books with sufficient care, he would become a sage.” In agreement, Pamuk writes, “Most people have not even done that, and that is why they collect books and show off their libraries.” Pamuk states at the outset of his novel The New Life, “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” I felt that I might have just finished reading such a book after reading Knife.

After the knife attack on Rushdie, the doctors were not hopeful. Rushdie’s wife Eliza had been warned he wasn’t going to make it. But by his side, she took charge, staying with him the whole time and recording his recovery on camera. Within ten days he bounced back, taking his doctors by amazement.

Rushdie writes about the 27 seconds when he was stabbed by the attacker: “I can see the moment in slow motion. My eyes follow the running man as he leaps out of the audience and approaches me, I see each step of his headlong run. I watch myself coming to my feet and turning toward him. (I continue to face him. I never turn my back on him. There are no injuries on my back.) I raise my left hand in self-defense. 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.”

On that day of August 12, 2022, Rushdie was attacked in a huge auditorium in Chautauqua, New York, where he was to speak to an audience of thousands about the importance of protecting writers.

A member of his surgery team later tells him, “When they brought you in from the helicopter, we didn’t think we could save you.” Rushdie describes the apparent damage: There was the deep knife wound in my left hand, which severed all the tendons and most of the nerves. There were at least two deeper stab wounds in my neck – one slash right across it and more on the right side-and another farther up my face, also on the right. If I look at my chest now, I see a line of wounds down the center, two more slashes on the lower right side, and a cut on my upper right thigh. And there is a wound on the left side of my mouth, and there was one along my hairline too.

And there was the knife in the eye, that was the cruelest blow, and it was a deep wound. The blade went in all the way to the optic nerve, which meant there would be no possibility of saving the vision. It was gone.

As bad as this was, he had been fortunate. A doctor said, “You are lucky that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife.”

A year on, he returns to the amphitheater where he was attacked and relives his memory of that fateful day.

Rushdie says about the book he wrote that has been sold millions of copies in this short period of time, “To be frank, it was and is a book I’d much rather not have needed to write.”

Strange as it may sound, but Rushdie doesn’t remember feeling angry with his assailant, but is upset about the happiness destroyed, which he felt the night before the attack, when he was standing in the summer moonlight with a new novel finished and proofread. 

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said the Greek philosopher Socrates. Following this sentiment, in his book, Rushdie, though in his imagination, throws down many basic moral questions, in the style of Socrates that force his attacker to examine his own life.

This powerful book provides a vivid account of the knife attack on the 75-year-old Rushdie, 33 years after Iran’s supreme leader Khomeini issued the fatwa. Rushdie writes: “During those empty sleepless nights, I thought a lot about The Knife as an idea. A knife is a tool, and acquires meaning from the use we make of it. Language, too, was a knife. It could cut open the world and reveal its meaning, its inner workings, its secrets, its truths. It could cut through from one reality to another.  It could call bullshit, open people’s eyes, create beauty. Language was my knife. If I had unexpectedly been caught in an unwanted knife fight, maybe this was the knife I could use to fight back. It could be the tool I would use to remake and reclaim my world.”

“To regret what your life has been is the true folly,” writes Salman Rushdie, challenging the idea of culpability and responsibility for the attack, ultimately rejecting any regret over his decisions.

While reading the book it feels like watching a thriller movie. A couple of nights before he was almost killed by a stranger with a knife, Salman Rushdie dreamed about being attacked by a Roman gladiator with a spear, a dream similar to those that he had had ever since Ayatollah Khoameni’s fatwa following the publication of The Satanic Verses, back in 1989, imagining his assassin rising up in some public form or other and coming for him.

Despite the onslaught, Rushdie appears undefeated and even feels triumphant in these three exquisite phrases. He writes: “Art is not a luxury. It stands at the essence of our humanity, and it asks for no special protection except the right to exist. It accepts argument, criticism, even rejection. It does not accept violence.”

And in the end, it outlasts those who oppress it. The poet Ovid was exiled by Augustus Caesar, but the poetry of Ovid has outlasted the Roman Empire. The poet Mandelstam’s life was ruined by Joseph Stalin, but his poetry has outlasted the Soviet Union. The poet Lorca was murdered by the thugs of General Franco, but his art has outlasted the fascism of the Falange.”