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Published on: 05/5/24 6:11 AM

Book review: Knife by Salman Rushdie

A deconstruction of events

The book`s tagline reads: meditations after an attempted murder. Which is as startling as it is dramatic. The text, though, is largely  a matter-of-fact chronological record of events. While not entirely leached of emotions – this is Salman Rushdie, after all – there isn’t any maudlin self-pity in the narrative. When the author asks why me, it`s a  cry of despair from one who had a fatwa put on his life 33 years ago, and had only just stopped running and hiding.

The opening line of Knife is hard to beat: At a quarter to eleven on August 12, 2022, on a sunny Friday morning in upstate New York, I was attacked and almost killed by a young man with a knife just after I came out on stage at the amphitheater in Chautauqua to talk about the importance of keeping writers safe from harm.

Grievously wounded in the  attack that lasted 27 seconds, the writer eventually emerged after a slow and   painful recuperation and recovery period having lost one eye, with one hand seriously damaged, a deep cut on his tongue, fluid collecting in one lung, a cancer scare,  and a host of attendant problems.

Naturally, the refrain in his head is why. He has no wish to confront his attacker who he refers to as `the A` throughout this book: A for (would-be) Assassin, Assailant, Asinine man who made Assumptions, with whom the writer had a near- lethal Assignation, the reader can take their pick. However, in a bid to silence the voice in his head, Rushdie  constructs an imaginary meeting wherein he sits down with a slew of questions for the A. The answers are pretty much what you would expect from someone radicalised, even though both Qs and As come from Rushdie`s imagination.

I never saw the knife, or at least I have no memory of it, states Rushdie, and then goes on to say that the knife is morally neutral in itself; it is the misuse of knives that is immoral.

Rushdie`s ruminations lead him to conclude that eventually, the power of his words will live on, and that love — in this case, the love of and for his fifth wife, the American poet and novelist Rachel Eliza Griffiths — will conquer this `motiveless malignity.`

He  intersperses his account with brief moments of philosophy as when parsing the meaning of `I` and `me,` quotes the opening line from The Satanic Verses (To be born again…first you have to die), muses on the weaponisation of religion, talks of  ee cummings,   Robert M. Pirsig, Socrates, Bertrand Russell,  PG  Wodehouse, the poet Farididdin Attar, John Locke and many others.

India continues to be a lost love.  `India, the country of my birth and my deepest inspiration, on that day found no words.` Elsewhere, `the hostility emanating from India and Pakistan…is a wound that remains unhealed to this day.` And among the dreams he dreams, `I dreamed of returning to my beloved Bombay…`

The A`s unexamined life

There is neither forgiveness nor compassion for the A in Rushdie, and that is most understandable. His speculation about  the young man`s level of intelligence as well his surmise  that the A lived an unexamined life is thought-provoking. We would not be who we are today without the calamities of our yesterdays, the writer avers, and is firm that he would answer violence with art. If the knife is a metaphor of death, he  counters it with many a metaphor of love. As for the A, `after his 27 seconds of fame were up, he was nobody again.`

Once we are done with flinching at everything the writer has gone through, we  need to ask if the knife attack has changed him much. The jury would still be out on that since Rushdie`s high self-regard, his need to prove that most of his past `sins` seem to have been forgiven by people, his digs at his former wives (not all, just one or two!), his ego, his snark,  all seem to be undented.

This is Rushdie`s second memoir after Joseph Anton. It is hard to read because of the savagery of the attack on him. As a reader, as one who believes in free speech and the right to imagination, one can only hope Salman Rushdie, 76 years old now,  is able to live out the rest of his days in peace and love, able to write books that tell wonderful stories, no longer a `strange fish famous more for the mishaps of his life than for his books.`

Knife, Meditations After an Attempted Murder By Salman Rushdie. Penguin Books. Rs 699. 209 pages.

This appeared in the Sunday Express Magazine of 5 May 2024.

Related Links:

Book review: Victory City by Salman Rushdie

Book review: Languages of Truth by Salman Rushdie

Book review: Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Book review: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Book review: Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Book excerpts: Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie


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Sheila Kumar • May 5, 2024

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