Salman Rushdie, Knife review: Author’s moving, sardonic memoir is not for the squeamish

Salman Rushdie’s Knife is not for the squeamish. Describing in detail the horrific attack by Hadi Matar on 12 August 2022, the 76-year-old Indian-born British-American author recalls that his “ruined eye” was “hugely distended, bulging out of its socket and hanging down on my face like a large soft-boiled egg”.

Rushdie was, we now know, stabbed 15 times in 27 seconds (in the right eye, neck, left hand, liver, abdomen, face, forehead, cheeks, mouth and chest) while on stage at the Chautauqua Institution in New York State, where he was due to deliver a lecture, as he says in the opening sentence of his new memoir, “about the importance of keeping writers safe from harm”.

The book, subtitled Meditations After an Attempted Murder, contains newsworthy revelations, including that he was so “transfixed” by the sight of his oncoming attacker that he made no attempt to flee or fight him off; that two days before the assault, Rushdie had experienced a premonitionary nightmare about being in a gladiatorial arena where a man was stabbing down at him with a spear; and that, “to his knowledge”, at least six assassination plots against him were foiled by the British intelligence services (the US-based author is still given 24-hour protection by the Metropolitan Police when he visits his family here).

Although the account of his violent ordeal is dramatic – covering not only the attack itself but the 18 days of intensive care and the months of painful rehabilitation – the book is also a nuanced meditation on life, death, the importance of art, and the chilling daily reality of violence. Reading the book in the immediate aftermath of the knife attacks in Sydney – and mindful that, in the UK alone, there were more than 50,500 stabbing offences last year [2023 figures from the Office for National Statistics] – it’s unsettling to contemplate Rushdie’s remark that “a knife attack is a kind of intimacy”.

Rushdie’s attack was, however, unique. The acclaimed author of more than a dozen novels, including the Booker-winning Midnight’s Children, had lived in fear of a deadly attack since his 1998 novel The Satanic Verses prompted Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa calling for his murder. Rushdie’s 2012 memoir Joseph Anton was “third-person-ish”, but Knife is a first-person autobiography, because “when somebody sticks a knife into you, that’s a first-person story. That’s an ‘I’ story.”

Knife is also an “eye” story, dedicated to “the men and women who saved my life” after Matar’s blade pierced Rushdie’s optic nerve. The memoir opens with a description of the “last thing my right eye would ever see”, a figure dressed all in black “coming in like a squat missile”. In reference to the fatwa, Rushdie also calls him “a murderous ghost from the past”.

Rushdie is rich in his imagery. He was “rooted to the spot like a rabbit-in-the-headlights fool” and admits that, when the fit 24-year-old assailant rushed towards him on the stage, he “just stood there like a piñata and let him smash me”. He admits that he is “embarrassed, even ashamed, by my failure to fight back”.

The cover art for ‘Knife’ by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)
The cover art for ‘Knife’ by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)

The trial of Matar, who was eventually subdued thanks to the pure heroism of strangers in the audience, had been due to start in January, but was postponed because of this memoir. Matar has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault, and Rushdie believes the trial will begin in September.

Rushdie, who was knighted in 2007 for services to literature, admits that the book is an attempt at “trying to understand what it was about”. Matar, a lone radicalised fanatic who had been plotting the attack from the basement of his family home in New Jersey, is central to the account, but Rushdie refers to him only as “the A” (in the book and in conversations with journalists) and is clearly bemused that his attacker had not even been born when the fatwa was declared. “My Assailant,” he writes in Knife, “my would-be Assassin, the Asinine man who made Assumptions about me, and with whom I had a near lethal Assignation... I have found [myself] thinking of him, perhaps forgivably, as an Ass.” Rushdie also refers to Matar’s motives as “banal” and describes him as being “hapless” and “not of high intelligence”.

Early in his recovery, Rushdie admits, he wanted to meet Matar for an honest conversation about the attack. “I wanted him to look me in my (one remaining) eye and tell me the truth,” he said. On the advice of his wife Eliza and close friends, he abandoned the idea. This nagging desire to discover what had motivated such a young man to attack with such frenzied malice is perhaps the inspiration for the oddest – and least potent – section of the book: an imagined conversation, over four meetings at Chautauqua County Jail, in which victim and attacker talk over a metal table. “So what was the reason?” Rushdie asks.

Rushdie attends the PEN America Literary Gala on 18 May 2023 in New York (AP)
Rushdie attends the PEN America Literary Gala on 18 May 2023 in New York (AP)

The dialogue feels forced. “F*** you, Mr Smartypants,” the A tells Rushdie, when he thinks he is being patronised. It allows Rushdie to talk about their “profound conjoining” and chew over the youngster’s desire to be an “executioner”. Rushdie baits him about his lack of a girlfriend, quotes Jodi Picoult at him, and discusses the merits of the Call of Duty video game. When the A tries to end the chat, Rushdie says he has control and is the one who will “put the words into your head”.

The book is perceptive and full of drollery, and perhaps masks that this is still a profoundly wounded man trying to work through his own PTSD. The chapter hardly squares with Rushdie’s assertion that Matar is “simply irrelevant to me”. It is possible that he is taking refuge in humour, but this reader was more taken with the author’s use of his own sharp irony to take apart his aggressor (he says, for example, that Matar’s decision to kill him seemed “undermotivated”, given that it appeared to be based on little more than finding the author “disingenuous” after watching a YouTube video and having “barely read two pages” of The Satanic Verses).

Rushdie goes on to write that he wants “My Samuel Beckett moment”, reflecting on the fact that in 1938, the Irish Nobel Prize winner Beckett was stabbed in the street by a pimp and later confronted his assailant when the case came to trial.

Beckett is among dozens of literary references, which include Coleridge, Shakespeare, Gabriel García Márquez, PG Wodehouse and Virginia Woolf. At one point he says that, like King Lear, he fears he is “not in my perfect mind”, which is hardly surprising when you consider that he had to cope with injuries that required the sewing up of his tongue, the painstakingly intrusive care of the “monstrosity” eye – he now wears a black lens on the right side of his glasses to disguise his sightless eye – and the agony of the cuts to his right cheek that left saliva “oozing out” for weeks afterwards. He was also left with partial paralysis of his lower lip, and injuries to his hand that left him with no feeling in the middle two fingers.

When his mind took flight, it did so in memories of Georges Méliès’ 1902 science-fiction classic Le Voyage dans la Lune, and musings on the fact that the name of the three-time Grand National winner Red Rum is “Murder” backwards. He also makes an unexpected Mandalorian joke, and says his recovery was boosted by watching Lionel Messi win the World Cup.

Despite the carnage inflicted on Rushdie’s body, his mind remains indefatigably sardonic. He likens the removal of his ventilator to taking out an “armadillo’s tail” and makes jokes about fluid draining and being treated by Dr Pain. He vividly recreates the agony of having a genital catheter inserted (“Nurse Bladder with her Bladderometer”) and is funny, if that’s possible, about his post-attack “likely cancer” diagnosis, which happily proved false. His account of a prostate examination is summed up with “Aaagh. Double aaagh. Even more aaagh.” Rushdie also admits he was worried about the damage to his Ralph Lauren suit. It takes a certain amount of candour to admit that you took the “talking gig” in the first place because the “sizeable fee” would help pay for a new home air-conditioning system.

The book examines our inevitable extinction, as human beings, by whatever “exterminating angel” fate brings, and delivers an eloquent view of his own “near-death experience” (there was nothing supernatural about it, Rushdie insists). Just as significantly, though, it analyses the conflict between the forces of fanaticism, bigotry, violence and hatred and those of love, friendship, art and freedom. The focal point of that collision was the knife entering his body, explains Rushdie. The knife assault and his recovery offer a stark reminder of both the best and the worst of human nature, and the book fulfils his aim to take charge of what happened on that terrible day and “to answer violence with art”.

For all the senseless hate at the heart of the story, this memoir is also a love story. Rushdie is intensely moving when he writes about his fifth wife, the American poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, who went through her own terrifying ordeal having to witness his battle for survival in Hamot Hospital. The moment when she sobs “My husband’s home, my husband’s home” is enough to bring a tear to any reader’s eye.

‘Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder’ is published by Jonathan Cape, £20