Salman Rushdie’s Harrowing New Book


Reading this harrowing new book by Salman Rushdie, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, I was reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s remark about writing Lolita: “As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: the sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

For more than 20 years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious 1989 fatwah on Rushdie, the author fought with everything he had to continue living and working as an unfettered writer of fiction, concentrating on his imaginary worlds, indifferent to the distracting reality around him. It proved ultimately futile. In 2012, he drew the first set of bars on his cage with the publication of Joseph Anton, his gripping third-person memoir of post-fatwah virtual captivity in Great Britain. That captivity ended with his decision to move to the United States in order to escape the security arrangements forced on him by the British government long after Rushdie felt they were necessary.

Rushdie’s life in this country was wonderfully normal. He was able to move freely about without being surrounded by security personnel; he no longer found people fearful of dining in restaurants with him; he no longer was confronted by airlines refusing to let him onto their planes; he wrote prolifically, made countless public appearances. In short, he resumed the life of a happily productive writer of fiction who was also a public figure, participating in conferences, attending parties (at one of which he met his new wife, Eliza Griffiths)—in general, living a quiet, often blissful life, the happy highlights of which he describes beautifully in this new (2024) book.

Then came August 12, 2022, at the Chautauqua Institution in upper New York State, where he was attacked and nearly killed by the knife-wielding assailant Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey resident who had read two or three pages of The Satanic Verses, then set off on his fatwah-driven mission.

“I had sometimes imagined my assassin rising up in some public forum or other and coming for me in just this way,” Rushdie writes. “So my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing toward me was: So it’s you…. This was my second thought: Why now, after all these years? Surely the world had moved on, and that subject was closed. Yet here, approaching fast, was a sort of time traveler, a murderous ghost from the past.”

Then came 27 seconds of slashing and stabbing before Rushdie’s audience managed to subdue the assailant.

This is an exceptionally (and necessarily) gory book. Rushdie is unsparing in his attention to detail in describing the array of horrifying wounds, 15 in all—how they feel, how they look, how they drain, what are their lasting after-effects—to his neck, eye, hand, tongue, torso. Some of it is almost unbearable to read. He was left without one eye, it having been destroyed when stabbed; with gruesome, lingering damage to his mouth and tongue; countless scars, chronic pains, and nerve damage; and with a hand that “reminds you at every stroke of the keyboard of the cause of your pain. The hand feels like it’s inside a glove, and it kind of crackles inside when moved.”

Yet Rushdie consistently finds a way to transcend the horror by writing gracefully, and often wittily, about it. When, for example, he is approaching release from intensive care after 18 days in his hospital’s trauma ward (out of which, one of his nurses says, “Very few people walk,” nearly all leaving in body bags), he alludes to his array of wounds with a humorous aside: “Dr. Eye, Dr. Hand, Dr. Stabbings, Dr. Slash, Dr. Liver, Dr. Tongue—all began to sign off.” And of the near-eternity he spent in a rehabilitation facility following his 18 days in hospital, after describing experiences that would have left most people dying from despair: “As the weeks inched by at Rusk, I was running a little low on gumption.”

It should be stressed that the book is not simply a well-reported story. Powerful as the narrative is, Rushdie has a grander reach. (His first coherent thought when he emerged from unconsciousness was that he needed to document his experience because “[t]his is bigger than me.”) 

The word “Meditations” in the subtitle is telling, for Knife is largely a meditation on meaning, on the metaphysical, on the purpose of writing, and on the impenetrable mystery behind the author’s survival. One of his doctors tells Rushdie that his survival is simply a matter of luck: “You’re lucky that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife.” 

But Rushdie is convinced that some miraculous force saved him, and he is baffled not only as to why, but at the apparent fact that such a force exists at all, in the face of his lifelong skepticism. “I don’t believe in miracles, but my survival is miraculous. Okay, then. So be it. The reality of my books—oh, call it magic realism if you must—is now the actual reality in which I’m living. Maybe my books had been building that bridge for decades, and now the miraculous could cross it. The magic had become realism.” He struggles to come to grips with such thinking: “I sounded delirious even to myself.”

It was this “larger subject” that ultimately drove him to write this “book I’d much rather not have needed to write.” And as much writing and thinking as he devotes to that larger subject, he still gives the reader glimpses behind the curtain of grace that he drapes over his more gruesome recollections. I found myself marveling at Rushdie’s equanimity, finding it scarcely believable, when he brought me up short with this confession: “My waking self, with its effortful composure, was, in a sense, a lie. The wild night language of my dreams told the truth.” He goes on to describe nightmares that have him thrashing so violently that he often ends up out of bed.

Transcendence, he wants us to know, is indispensable to survival, and—as he illustrates in the transcendent telling of this horrible story—attainable. But it also is hard to sustain. As he continues to rehabilitate from his physical wounds, he is also undergoing psychotherapy: “My way of trying to deal with PTSD was to claim, most of the time, that I was okay. I told my therapist, ‘I don’t know what good it does to complain.’ He laughed. ‘Don’t you know that the reason you’re here is to complain?’”

A lesser writer would have written this story in the form of a book-long complaint. What Rushdie has done—and this seems particularly remarkable in light of the fact that the simple act of writing is terribly painful for him, every keystroke reminding him of his ordeal—is write something impossibly devoid of self-pity, while gracefully making clear that fighting it off is a titanic struggle—one that is unlikely ever to end. 

Fred Moody
Fred Moody
Fred Moody, who wrote articles for Seattle Weekly and other publications as well as books, now lives on Bainbridge Island.


  1. For more on Salman Rushdie try the hourlong conversation Rushdie had with David Axelrod on THE AXEFILES wherevr you listen to podcasts.It adds the author’s voice to Fred Moody’s review

  2. The book is a fine medical narrative, peppered with literary references, but it’s also more than that, because Rushdie has a good heart. His humanism, intelligence, and kindness shine through it. Put a hold on it at your library. (You’ll be waiting a while.)


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