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Knife – Salman Rushdie's harrowing new book, reviewed by Jasper Rees

Blog | By Jasper Rees | Apr 18, 2024

Salman Rushdie by Gary Wing

Salman Rushdie has turned the horrific attack on him into a masterpiece. By Jasper Rees

Knife is Salman Rushdie’s shortest book.

The novels, those great freeform temples of imagination, balloon beyond 400 pages. The Satanic Verses, with its cameo for the prophet, exceeds 500.

For more than 30 years, the fatwa it triggered found its author imagining the approach of an assassin. The last place Rushdie expected to encounter such a bogeyman was in a sleepy hollow in upstate New York called Chautauqua (pop. 4,000).

Yet there this figure was on 12 August 2022, with a sackful of knives but fortunately no lethal knowledge of how to wield one.

“Really?” Rushdie remembers thinking as his would-be killer bore down. “It’s been so long. Why now, after all these years?”

Knife is a heroic, unflinching and immersive account of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an attempted murder. Not to resist as the blows land. Not to lose consciousness at the very final frontier.

“My body was dying and it was taking me with it,” Rushdie found himself thinking, as blood pooled around him, while first responders chopped up his nice Ralph Lauren suit to inspect the damage.

“Red Rum is murder backward,” his brain involuntarily told him as he lay dying.

According to reports, the attack lasted precisely 27 seconds – enough time, he says, to recite an intimate love sonnet – and left wounds all over Rushdie’s upper body. In hospital, these would call for multiple specialists. He mordantly dubs them – like figures from a Restoration farce – Dr Hand, Dr Stabbings, Dr Liver, Dr Tongue, Dr Pain and Dr Staples, not forgetting Nurse Bladder.

The treatments of Dr Eye provoke dreams of Gloucester’s blinding. “Gentle reader, if you can avoid having your eyelid sewn shut,” he recommends, “avoid it. It really, really hurts.” While he’s at it, he warns against catheters, too. Nor is he a fan of rectal inspection.

In his hospital bed, Rushdie resisted his agent Andrew Wylie’s prediction that he would write all about it. Then, when he had recovered enough to address the blank first page of his next novel, “There was a f**king enormous mastodon in my workroom, waving its trunk and snorting and stinking quite a bit.”

Rationally, the reader wishes there had been no blood or blinding, and thus no book. But that the attack has prompted this passionate defence of free speech, and a paean to the imperishable necessity of art, is literature’s ulterior gain.

It is also a short book about love. Rushdie seizes the opportunity to lionise Rachel Eliza Griffiths, the fifth wife who has made a gushingly happy man of him. If his happiness writes quite white on the page, it serves as a defiantly bright contrast to the black hole of religious hatred.

Rushdie refuses to name the radicalised incel who, interviewed from behind bars by the New York Post, said he was moved to murder because he found the author “disingenuous”. Rushdie calls him ‘The A’ – an abbreviation that could denote anything from Assassin to Ass.

His fantasy to meet and confront The A remains just that. Instead, he conjures up a putative dialogue, in which he is honest enough not to award himself an easy win.

This is a crowded story. Alongside all the medics, his sons and his sister also swim into focus. Among the many writers who move through the pages, there is a deeply felt valediction to Martin Amis: “Death was showing up at the wrong addresses.”

Alas, Knife went to press too soon for Rushdie to confront the craven Royal Society of Literature, which slowly issued a supportive tweet, “sending strength”, but omitted to condemn the attack on freedom of expression.

18 months on, its president, Bernardine Evaristo, clarified that the RSL “cannot take sides in writers’ controversies and issues, but must remain impartial”. “Just wondering if the Royal Society of Literature is ‘impartial’ about attempted murder?” Rushdie tweeted. “(Asking for a friend.)” A longer response to this buffoonery is the one thing missing.

In the course of recovery, his latest novel was published. The day a book takes its bow is “a bit like undressing in public”, he says. Rushdie has never undressed himself more than now, not even in his memoir Joseph Anton, even unto the most private of cavities and recesses.

The result is a victory for reason, morality and language – language which Rushdie likens to a knife. “It could cut open the world and reveal its meaning, its inner workings, its secrets, its truths.”

This is not just Rushdie’s shortest book. It is also his sharpest.

Jasper Rees is author of Let’s Do It – the Authorised Biography of Victoria Wood