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Salman Rushdie’s New Memoir ‘Knife’ is About Three People — Him, His Assailant, His Wife

Salman Rushdie’s New Memoir ‘Knife’ is About Three People — Him, His Assailant, His Wife

  • The renowned author who was repeatedly stabbed and lost sight in one eye in an on-stage attack, says the life-changing incident gave him a familiarity with death.

At first, Salman Rushdie was hesitant about writing a book about the onstage attack on him at a literary event in Upstate New York in August 2021, but it became something he had to do as he couldn’t focus on anything else. That book — “Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder” — which was released on  April 16 is the acclaimed author’s “way to take charge of what happened and to answer violence with art,” according to a statement issued byPenguin Random House.

In “Knife,” Rushdie relives the traumatic events of that day of the attack, its aftermath,  as well as his journey towards physical recovery and the healing that was made possible by the love and support of his wife, Eliza, his family, his army of doctors and physical therapists, and his community of readers worldwide. 

The Indian-born British-American author narrowly avoided death but lost sight in his right eye among other severe and life-changing injuries. He was able to walk again 15 days after his emergency surgery, “during which doctors operated on multiple organs simultaneously,” The Washington Post reported. He returned to his home in New York City more than six weeks later, the report added. “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.”

Rushdie was attacked onstage at the Chautauqua Institution, a summer arts community in New York, where he was scheduled to speak about the U.S. as a safe haven for exiled writers. As the event was about to begin, Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey man jumped onstage and stabbed Rushdie repeatedly in the face and the abdomen before members of the audience pulled the assailant away. Matar, who has been charged with attempted second-degree murder and second-degree assault, has pleaded not guilty. His trial is on hold, since his lawyer argued that the “defendant is entitled by law to see the manuscript [of “Knife”], and related material before standing trial,” as reported by the Associate Press.

But Rushdie almost didn’t make it to the event. Two nights before, he was contemplating cancelling his appearance, because of a dream. He was in an ancient Roman amphitheater, rolling around on the ground while a gladiator with a spear stabbed down at him. “”I was rolling about in bed and thrashing around, and my wife had to wake me up,” he told Stephen Colbert during a appearance on his late night TV show last week. But he rationalized his fears. “People have dreams. You don’t run your daily life because of having a bad dream. And so I decided I would go,” he told Colbert. Little did he know that his entire world would be turning upside down.

Recalling the incident, he credited some brave strangers with coming to his rescue after he was stabbed, including the fireman who used his thumb to stem the bleeding. He thought he was dying, he said, but admitted that during his near-death experience, there was “no heavenly choir and no runner of light.”

“Knife” was “the only book I’ve ever written with the help of a therapist. It gave me back control of the narrative. Instead of being a man lying on the stage with a pool of blood, I’m a man writing a book about a man live on stage with a pool of blood. That felt good.”

He told NPR that the attack changed his understanding of death. “I think what it did is two things that it, first of all, gave me a kind of familiarity with death,” he said. “I kind of know how it goes now. I didn’t get to the final note of the music, thank goodness. But I kind of understand how the tune goes. But also what it did, what it has done, is to give me an enormously increased appreciation of life,” he added. “I feel like these are days I wasn’t supposed to have, and yet here I am, having them, and every day is a blessing.”

When he began thinking of writing the book, he wondered what more he could  bring to it, apart from the attack. That’s when he began to realize that it was about himself in between two forces. “One is a force of violence and hatred, and the other is the force of love and healing,” he told NPR. The book became about three people — him, his assailant, his wife, Rachel Eliza Griffiths And so I wanted to write about love, and in a more open and direct way than maybe that I’ve ever done before.

Speaking at a Q&A at an English PEN event at the Southbank Centre in London via video from his home in New York, he he said penning the first chapter, which describes some details of the attack, was difficult,” The Guardian reported. He told the audience that “Knife” was “the only book I’ve ever written with the help of a therapist. It gave me back control of the narrative. Instead of being a man lying on the stage with a pool of blood, I’m a man writing a book about a man live on stage with a pool of blood. That felt good.”

What surprised him the most his that he doesn’t feel anger on the attack. “One of the things that I think has been very strange for me is that the emotion that I haven’t really had in the aftermath of all this is anger,” he told NPR. “And it’s as if something in my head tells me that anger would be a way of being stuck in the moment. It would be a way of not being able to get past it. And so I don’t have anger. I guess somewhere deep down I am pretty furious with various people, notably the gentleman with the knife, but it doesn’t seem productive to me to linger on anger.”

In the book, Rushdie doesn’t mention Matar by name, only referring to him as “The A.” He told The Independent that he owes that decision to not name him to Margaret Thatcher. The former British prime minister had to find a way to tackle the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which launched a number of terrorist attacks against the UK throughout her time in No 10. “She wanted to deny the terrorists the oxygen of publicity,” he said, comparing her method to his own when it came to writing about his attacker.

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Despite his initial hesitation, Rushdie told NPR he’s glads he wrote the memoir. ”It changed my relationship to the event,” he said. “Instead of just being the person who got stabbed, I now see myself as the person who wrote a book about getting stabbed. And so it feels like it’s back in my own authorial space, and I feel more in charge of it. And that feels good.”

Knife has received rave reviews. In her review in The Guardian, Rachel Cooke notes that Rushdie’s writing in “Knife” is “as good as it has ever been, and also (sometimes) as bad.” If the author “appears before us as a courageous person, a true hero of free speech, he is still a bit of a snob and a show-off. She finds “the amour propre that was “on display in his first memoir ‘Joseph Anton’ has not gone away, she is perhaps “more willing to forgive it now.”

The Telegraph calls it “a tour-de-force, in which the great novelist takes his brutal near-murder and spins it into a majestic essay on art, pain and love.”

However, The Washington Post says the book is ‘not worthy of his best work or the pain that occasioned it, though his desire to memorialize his anguish is of course understandable.”

The New York Times notes like “unlike ‘Joseph Anton’, ‘Knife,“contains a love story.” He  recounts meeting, wooing and marrying his wife, three decades his junior. “Their story adds buoyancy to this memoir. But it takes a long time for that light to pour in. First there will be arduous recovery and rehab.” Becca Rothfield notes that “Knife,”mostly “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.”

The Times’ review, Dwight Garner writes that “Knife” is “a clarifying book,” which “reminds us of the threats the free world faces, and reminds us of the things worth fighting for.” The book gives rise to many questions, Garner notes. “It is uncertain if Rushdie will lose the sight in his remaining eye because of macular degeneration; and where he and Griffiths will choose to live.” But, the mood of the book is quite positive, he adds, as “suggested by this line about going out to a restaurant for the first time since the attack: ‘After the angel of death, the angel of life.’”

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