Image: Thomas Lohnes / Stringer. Illustration by Prospect

Ars gratia vitae: Salman Rushdie’s ‘Knife’ reviewed

The author has chosen to counter violence with something stronger—his art. Do the rest of us have the courage to follow?
May 1, 2024

When Salman Rushdie wrote Joseph Anton (2012), a 600-page memoir of his years in hiding, he used the third person to describe himself: a novelist living in the shadow of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989, calling for his death as the author of The Satanic Verses.

That book concluded with an assessment in 2002 by the intelligence services that the threat level had fallen significantly; a party held in Rushdie’s honour by the Special Branch officers who had protected him; and his exit from the darkness into the light: “He walked out of the Halcyon Hotel on to Holland Park Avenue and stuck out an arm to hail a passing cab.”

In vivid contrast, Knife is written in the first person. As he remarked to the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, last year, only a few months after a brutal attempt on his life had been made at a literary event in Chautauqua, New York, on 12th August 2022: “This doesn’t feel third-person-ish to me. I think when somebody sticks a knife into you, that’s a first-person story. That’s an ‘I’ story.”

That the book should exist at all is miraculous—a word that the atheist Rushdie uses often and unabashedly in these pages. From the platform of the amphitheatre, he sees “a squat missile” hurtling towards him through the audience. Then, the recognition that his release from the fatwa had only been provisional: “my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing toward me was: So it’s you. Here you are.”

In 27 seconds, he was stabbed about 15 times by his 24-year-old assailant (to whom he refers dismissively as “the A”). The damage to his 75-year-old body was immense, the loss of blood critical, and, for days, his life hung in the balance.

The six wretched weeks that Rushdie spent in hospital are described in gruelling detail, and necessarily so. It is right that this not be framed as a story of easy heroism in which the invincible writer simply brushes aside the attack (though, always eclectic in his allusions, he does comfort his son Milan by saying that “the fictional character with whom I now most strongly identify is Wolverine”, the Marvel mutant with regenerative superpowers).

So we are not spared the surgical slicing, the probing, the stitching, the draining, the destroyed right eye “like a sci-fi movie special effect… hugely distended, bulging out of its socket and hanging down on my face like a large soft-boiled egg”. And, in case you were wondering: “Let me offer this piece of advice to you, gentle reader: if you can avoid having your eyelid sewn shut… avoid it. It really, really hurts.”

This is the mutilation and misery caused by theocratic violence: the hell created by inadequate men preposterously invoking heaven

At such moments, we are light years from the fantastical magic realism of Rushdie’s fiction (“something immense and nonfictional had happened to me”). This is the pain, mutilation and misery caused by theocratic violence: the hell created by inadequate men preposterously invoking heaven. In which context, one should never forget that the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, Hitoshi Igarashi, was assassinated in 1991, while its Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, only narrowly escaped a similar fate two years later.

The force standing between Rushdie and extinction—other than his own extraordinary will to live—is his fierce love for his wife, the poet and novelist Rachel Eliza Griffiths, with whom he rebuilds “a wounded happiness”. Her role in the book is deeply moving, her strength unwavering as her husband hovers in the marchlands between life and death and then makes his arduous way back to an impaired but implacable version of normality.

Full of drugs in his hospital bed, he has visions that match his calling: “The building blocks of these fantastic structures were letters, as if the world was words, created from the same basic material as language, and poetry.” Even in his hallucinations, Rushdie dwells upon writing and its power.

So it should be no surprise that Knife is a fine essay on the nature of art as well as a memoir of physical and emotional recovery from trauma (the first book that he has written with the support of a therapist). Language, he concludes, is his own blade: “To write would be my way of owning what had happened, taking charge of it, making it mine, refusing to be a mere victim. I would answer violence with art.”

This is the confrontation, the dialectic, that lies at the heart of the book. “Art,” Rushdie writes, “is not a luxury. It stands at the essence of our humanity, and it asks for no special protection except the right to exist. It accepts argument, criticism, even rejection. It does not accept violence.”

He writes graciously of the world’s response to the attack—the messages of support from Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron, the expressions of solidarity from his fellow authors and the public. “Affection had replaced fear in the public mind,” he recalls. “That meant a very great deal.”

That said, Rushdie is rightly concerned by a more general retreat from the defence of free expression: “Progressives had started backing away from [freedom] toward new definitions of the social good according to which people would no longer be entitled to dispute the new norms. Protecting the rights and sensibilities of groups perceived as vulnerable would take precedence over freedom of speech.”

In particular, he recalls the “upsetting number of prominent writers” (242, to be exact) who objected in 2015 to PEN America’s presentation of its Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, after eight of its editorial staff and four others were killed, and 11 injured, by two jihadi gunmen. The signatories claimed that the magazine’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad “must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering” to “marginalized, embattled, and victimized” Muslims and opposed the granting of a prize that would be “enthusiastically rewarding such expression”.

This is how free speech dies, in the craven pieties of writers who seek to reconcile the irreconcilable; in the delusion that there is a right not to be offended that can co-exist with a right to speak and create freely. As Rushdie knows better than any of the letter writers, “the first lesson of free expression [is] that you must take it for granted. If you are afraid of the consequences of what you say, then you are not free.”

This is how free speech dies, in the craven pieties of writers who seek to reconcile the irreconcilable

And herein lies the problem. As the writer Kenan Malik has aptly observed, we have “internalised” the fatwa. It is present in the silent acts of self-censorship, in the policing of fiction manuscripts by “sensitivity readers”, in the instruction to writers to “stay in their lane”. It was present in the scandalous failure of the Royal Society of Literature to condemn the attack on Rushdie (the RSL confined itself lamely to “sending strength”). Really, the only question worth asking is: would The Satanic Verses be published today?

That this question immediately answers itself should alarm writers, artists and journalists much more than it does. In the contemporary republic of letters, the prevention of supposed “harms” caused by speech too often counts for more than the protection of speech itself. Stealthily, “social justice” has become, for many, a more cherished value than free expression.

The follies of this shift are numerous. But the most obvious was identified by the American intellectual Jonathan Rauch in his prophetic book Kindly Inquisitors (1993): “what about the day when right wingers get the upper hand? Will they be ‘fair’?… no one stays on top for long.” The full meaning of these questions is made grimly apparent by the flourishing censorship in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Ron DeSantis’s Florida. As the narrator of Rushdie’s most recent novel, Victory City, observes: “The reality of poetry and the imagination follows its own rules.” Which is why theocrats, authoritarians and populist charlatans seek so zealously to constrain it.

Until very recently, free speech was considered a progressive value, precisely because it ensured the right of minorities and the disenfranchised to have their say. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Berkeley activist Mario Savio understood this. “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent,” said the late US congressman John Lewis, “the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings.”

That this has been forgotten by so many is depressing indeed. But, after reading Knife, it is impossible to feel despair. On the contrary: Rushdie’s irrepressible ebullience is an inspiration and a wake-up call.

“The attack felt like a large red ink blot spilled over an earlier page. It was ugly but it didn’t ruin the book.” Exactly. The tumbling references—to The Mandalorian, The Seventh Seal, Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, Coleridge, King Lear—are a joyous response to the fundamentalists and their dreary appeasers: you can destroy bodies, but you can’t destroy this.

One of the strangest details of the whole story is that Rushdie’s assailant brought a bag with “a selection of knives”. Curious, for sure, but also a bracing reminder that there will always be other blades, literal and metaphorical, directed at the human imagination, seeking to replace creativity with conformism; pluralism with uniformity; irony with literalism. As this magnificent book reminds us, it is in this battle that we fight to be fully human.