Life & Culture

Knife by Salman Rushdie, review: What about the other victims of the new fundamentalism?

This book is a deeply moving account of a devastating attack and its consequences, but it is also guilty of sins of omission


I first met Salman Rushdie in the early 1980s. He had just written his breakthrough novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), and was in his early 30s, smart, articulate, genial. The next time we met he was about to go into hiding as a result of the fatwa which followed The Satanic Verses (1988). He was aware of the desperate seriousness of his situation but opinion in Britain was strangely divided. Some realised this was a hugely important issue of free speech and that it was one of the first major battles in a much longer war between the liberal west and Islamic fundamentalism. Others thought it was all exaggerated, that perhaps Muslims had a point and that, anyway, wasn’t Rushdie rather overrated as a writer?

He later moved to America in search of a more normal life. Then on August 12, 2022 he was brutally attacked by a young religious fanatic. The assailant stabbed him 12 times in 27 seconds. Rushdie suffered wounds to his abdomen, three wounds to his neck, a wound on the left side of his mouth, a devastating wound to his right eye, another to his left hand, and wounds to his chest, his right thigh and his liver. He lost sight in one eye and the use of one hand. “I remember lying on the floor watching the pool of my blood spreading outward from my body… And then I thought: I’m dying.” He was rushed to a waiting helicopter and flown to a nearby hospital. The surgery took eight hours. He was in the extreme trauma ward for eighteen days and then in rehab for another three weeks.

Knife: Meditations after an Attempted Murder is a deeply moving account of this devastating attack and its consequences. These early chapters describing the attack and his treatment in hospital in shocking detail are the best parts of the book. It is a miracle that at 75 he survived so many terrible wounds.

The second half of the book is more reflective. Rushdie writes about the war between the West and Islamic fundamentalism but he is at his best when writing about a similar terrible knife attack on the great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz and about the battle between writers and tyrants. Ovid was sent into exile, Osip Mandelstam was one of the great Soviet writers persecuted by Stalin and the poet Lorca was murdered by Spanish fascists, but their writing has outlasted the regimes that oppressed them.

Elsewhere, though, the book lapses into self-absorption and the writing becomes slack. What about other victims of the new fundamentalism? It’s not just about writers. Think of the brave women in Iran, there isn’t a single reference to Israel, there’s just a passing reference to the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo (who Rushdie champions here as he did at the time). More surprising, there are only a few pages on his good friend Martin Amis who died of cancer in 2023 but nothing on why Rushdie, Amis and Hitchens all moved to America or what was the legacy of that extraordinary generation of writers who burst onto the scene in the 1980s. What about Rushdie’s own literary legacy? As he approaches 80, how does he think he will be remembered? Where is home? He was born in India, became famous in Britain and now lives in America. What does home mean to him?

These are important questions but he’s surprisingly uninterested in them. I found myself thinking about the young Rushdie I first met 40 years ago. He seemed more interesting and likeable then. Was this the result of the fatwa and years of fear and hiding? Here, as elsewhere, he doesn’t want to ask the big questions about his life.


By Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape, £20.00

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