Miami Herald (Sunday)

Salman Rushdie cuts to the quick in ‘Knife’


How do you recover from a stranger’s attempt to murder you in front of a thousand people, an attack that leaves you on the edge of death with 15 stab wounds?

If you’re Salman Rushdie, you write a book about it.

Rushdie’s new memoir, “Knife: Meditation­s After an Attempted Murder,” has a stunningly graphic but elegant cover, and the same descriptio­n applies to the tale it tells.

The power of story to make sense of the senseless is a theme that has long run through Rushdie’s fiction. After the attack, he needed that power to reclaim his own life.

Rushdie’s career as a writer – 13 novels plus short stories, nonfiction, children’s books and memoirs – stretches across almost 50 years and has earned him acclaim, a plethora of literary honors and a knighthood. It also got him a death sentence, a fatwa handed down by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, who took offense at Rushdie’s brilliant satirical novel “The Satanic Verses,” published in 1988.

For a decade the Indiaborn Rushdie lived in hiding in England. There were attempts on his life, but the British government provided him with round-the-clock security. He kept writing, and eventually he emerged back into public life and, more than 20 years ago, moved to New York City.

The very real fears of those years faded, he writes, and he became not just a public figure but an activist for free speech and the need to protect the rights of writers to express themselves, leading organizati­ons like PEN/America.

He was invited to speak on the topic of protecting writers (the irony does not escape him) in August 2022 at the Chautauqua Institutio­n in Chautauqua, New York, a tiny, charming town with a rich cultural tradition.

On the morning of

Aug. 12, Rushdie had been introduced and taken a seat on stage. “Then,” he writes, “in the corner of my right eye – the last thing my right eye would ever see – I saw the man in black running toward me down the right-hand side of the seating area. … He was coming in hard and low: a squat missile. I got to my feet and watched him come. I didn’t run. I was transfixed.”

Despite all the years that had passed since the fatwa, he writes, he had sometimes imagined an assassin, and “my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing toward me was: So it’s you. Here you are.”

The then-24-year-old attacker, whom Rushdie never names in this book, stabbed him repeatedly in the head, neck, torso, hand and leg before Rushdie’s interviewe­r and audience members could drag him off his victim.

One stroke of the knife severed tendons in Rushdie’s left hand, another swept across his throat, and one plunged into his right eyeball, ruining the optic nerve.

Rushdie captures vividly the way such catastroph­e can turn the world surreal. He never saw the knife, he writes, and only realized he had been stabbed when he saw the blood pouring around him on the floor. He noticed someone was cutting his clothes off: “Oh, I thought, my nice Ralph Lauren suit.” He has no memory of pain in the chaos in the attack.

Days later, as he emerges from the fog of postoperat­ive drugs – it took eight hours of surgery for doctors to, as he describes it, staple him back together – he struggles to make sense of what happened.

His attacker, a young man of Lebanese descent born in California and raised in New Jersey, had no history of violence or religious extremism. He told interviewe­rs he had read only “a couple pages” of Rushdie’s writing. Why had he decided to attack him?

He’d seen the writer on YouTube, he said. “I don’t like him very much. … I don’t like people who are disingenuo­us like that.”

Rushdie is perplexed. “‘I wanted to murder him because he was disingenuo­us’ would be an unconvinci­ng motive if one were to use it in crime fiction, and my strongest feeling, after reading his remarks, was that his decision to kill me seemed undermotiv­ated.”

What he wants to say to him, Rushdie writes, is: “You’ll have to come up with a better reason than that.”

But the attacker remains opaque; later in the book, Rushdie imagines a conversati­on with him about, among other things, the man having been radicalize­d by “Imam Yutubi … manyheaded and manyvoiced.” But even when he writes that part of the story himself, he’s frustrated by the result.

We see him taking a writer’s approach to other elements more successful­ly. He addresses the notion of foreshadow­ing, so useful in fiction, but he resists it in fact, even though he had a recurring nightmare, including one two nights before the attack, of being in an arena trying to avoid being stabbed by a gladiator. His greatest lifelong fear had been losing his eyesight. In his 13th novel, “Victory City,” which he completed just before he was attacked, a major character is viciously blinded. He brushes those things off as coincidenc­e – but tells us about them all the same, weaving his story together.

Rushdie is fearless in describing the pain and utter loss of privacy involved in his recovery, which took weeks in the hospital, months in rehab and who knows how long coping with post-traumatic stress. The worst pain, he writes, came when his right eye, for weeks so swollen and damaged it hung out over his cheek, recovered enough for him to shut his eyelid. His eye doctor then sutured the eyelid shut to let the eye heal further (although it remains sightless), an agonizing process.

Rushdie was 75 when he was stabbed, and his recovery has been arduous, yet he finds humor and even an upside – he loses 55 pounds and stops snoring, “though,” he writes, “I agreed with everyone that it was not a diet plan to be recommende­d.”

“Knife” is also a love story. In 2017, looking at age 70 and a veteran of four divorces, Rushdie had decided, rather cheerfully, that he was done with romance. Then, at a literary event, he met the poet and photograph­er Rachel Eliza Griffiths. So smitten was he that first night that he actually walked into a door, and she bundled him into a taxi to take him to have his injuries treated (yet another omen, perhaps).

They married in 2021 and were, by his account, deliriousl­y happy – until that day in Chautauqua. Her devoted, tender care and tenacious navigation of the health care system take their love to another level, and he gives her every credit.

“Knife” was born out of his need to tell the story and to reclaim his role as a writer. He fears “the greatest damage

I’ve suffered, both before August 12 and because of August 12. I’ve become a strange fish, famous not so much for my books as for the mishaps of my life.”

Hence the memoir: “Until I dealt with the attack, I wouldn’t be able to write anything else.” If you know his other books, for which he is rightfully famous, you’ll be eager for whatever is next.

Knife: Meditation­s After an Attempted Murder

By Salman Rushdie; Random House, 224 pages, $28

 ?? ANGELA WEISS AFP/Getty Images/TNS ?? Author Salman Rushdie’s memoir ‘Knife’ recounts the near-fatal stabbing at a public event in 2022 that left him blind in one eye and his journey to healing.
ANGELA WEISS AFP/Getty Images/TNS Author Salman Rushdie’s memoir ‘Knife’ recounts the near-fatal stabbing at a public event in 2022 that left him blind in one eye and his journey to healing.

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