Salman Rushdie’s memoir recounts the attack that almost killed him: ‘I just stood there like a piñata and let him smash me’

‘Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder’ is a narrative full of digressions that trace short memories about the attack that caused the writer to lose an eye

Salman Rushdie
The writer Salman Rushdie, photographed last October.picture alliance (dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Sergio C. Fanjul

There are parts that read like canonical horror, such as the passage that explains how a nurse came in to treat his injured eye, and at that moment his wife and the other people in the room saw what looked like a special effect from a science fiction movie, the eye very distended, “protruding from the socket and hanging on the cheekbone like a soft-boiled egg.” At that point Salman Rushdie was on a ventilator, he had wounds to his chest, metal staples in his throat and cheek, a section of his intestine had been removed, his neck looked swollen, and his heart was “bruised.” His wife, the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, would not let him look in the mirror for a long time.

The writer remembers it as a scene from The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman, in which the knight plays chess with death, trying to delay the final checkmate. It was not clear that he would survive, but he did. Rushdie lost his eye, but not his life. He tells the story in his new book, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, out in the U.S. on April 16.

It happened in August 2022, when the Indian-born, British-American author was about to give a talk in Chautauqua, in upstate New York. An assailant named Hadi Matar (in the book he prefers to call him only A.) ran on stage and stabbed Rushdie, who was standing in an amphitheater that could seat 4,000 people. Out of the corner of his right eye he perceived a man dressed in black, wearing a balaclava and running towards him. He was paralyzed, and still wonders why to this day.

No fewer than 34 and a half years earlier, in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian revolution and the representative of Allah on earth, had issued a death sentence through a fatwa against Rushdie for the publication of The Satanic Verses, which he considered a blasphemous text. He urged Muslims to kill him. Seeing the attacker, after so much time, Rushdie thought: “So it’s you. Here you are.”

Somehow he had gotten used to living with the threat and he couldn’t believe that now, so many years later, death was coming to him on that stage. At first, the audience was also paralyzed. Many thought that it was some kind of performance to illustrate the talk, which was going to verse precisely on the persecution that some authors suffer for exercising their freedom of expression.

He did not see the knife, or has no memory of it, writes Rushdie in his memoir. He does not know whether it was “a stiletto, bread-knife — serrated or crescent — curved or a street kid’s flick knife, or even a common carving knife stolen from his mother’s kitchen. I don’t care, it was serviceable enough.” Rushdie also wonders why he just stood still while the assailant kept stabbing him over and over. “Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I run? I just stood there like a piñata and let him smash me,” he says in the book. First a blow to the jaw, then wounds to the hands, the neck, the chest, to the left corner of the mouth, even to the right thigh. The stab wound in the right eye reached the optic nerve.

The attack, which lasted almost half a minute (the time it takes to recite a Lord’s Prayer or a Shakespeare sonnet, the author observes), ended when the moderator Henry Reese, a man in his seventies (the attacker was 24), came forward heroically to subdue the assailant, an action joined by other members of the public whom Rushdie cannot even name. The attacker did not know much about The Satanic Verses, he has since declared that he had only read a couple of pages. In the text, Rushdie describes religion as a medieval form of unreason, which, combined with contemporary weaponry, poses a real threat to our freedoms.

Love conquers hatred

In Knife, Rushdie starts from that critical moment when he looked death face to face, and always ends up returning to that moment, but in between he opens the circle and reaches out to other issues, mixing autobiographical details (for example, how he met his partner, the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and his relationship with her) and other disquisitions on life, death, violence and literature. Above all, it’s about how love conquers hate.

Salman Rushdie in London in July 2023.
Salman Rushdie in London in July 2023.Jordan Pettitt (PA / Cordon Press)

Four imaginary interviews are recreated between Rushdie and his attacker, who has shown no remorse, in which the writer tries to understand (and convince) A., who in conversation appears stubborn and evasive, obsessed with religion, Netflix and video games. The writer speaks to him, very professorially, about Bertrand Russell, Ovid, Socrates, Franz Fanon; the assailant invariably responds with quotes from Imam Yutubi.

Elsewhere, Rushdie relates curious details of a metaphysical nature, such as, for example, that a couple of nights before the attack he dreamed of a Roman gladiator attacking him with a spear. That someone would get up from the audience and pounce on him had been a recurring dream since Khomeini’s conviction, and the dream finally came true. When he woke up from the eight-hour surgery, he experienced strange architectural visions: “Sumptuous palaces and other grand edifices that were all built out of alphabets.“

The postoperative period was hard, with dizziness, nightmares and even a urinary infection. Later he would return to the scene of the crime, where he observed the contrast of the beauty of the place with the horror of what happened there, to close that disastrous circle of life that, as he says, at least helped him lose weight. Salman Rushdie managed to lift his spirits by reviewing the proofs of his next novel, Victory City. Especially with his last phrase: “Words are the only victors.”

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