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  1. The Weekend Essay
20 April 2024

Salman Rushdie’s warning bell

His memoir Knife is a defence of free speech for a new age of intolerance. We should listen.

By Nicola Sturgeon

“At a quarter to eleven on August 12, 2022, on a sunny Friday morning in upstate New York, I was attacked and almost killed by a young man with a knife just after I came out on stage at the amphitheatre in Chautauqua to talk about the importance of keeping writers safe from harm.”

This is the stark opening paragraph of Salman Rushdie’s new book, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder.

It is hard to imagine a book more visceral, personal, vulnerable. Rushdie’s earlier work of memoir, Joseph Anton, was written in the third person. It is inconceivable that this one could have been: “when somebody wounds you 15 times it definitely feels very first-person,” Rushdie writes. “That’s an ‘I’ story.”

Rushdie pours himself, heart and soul, onto the page. It is a book which, in his words, “I’d much rather not have needed to write” – a sentiment that can surprise no one – but reads like the “reckoning” he claims it to be.

Knife is writing as therapy, a healing process for Rushdie’s mind. He uses his art, a tool he wields with customary power and precision, to blunt the impact of the blade that almost ended his life. It takes him to a place of cold indifference to the individual who plunged it into him: “I don’t forgive you. I don’t not forgive you. You are simply irrelevant to me.”

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Writing it, Rushdie explains, was a “way of taking ownership of what happened, making it mine – making it my work. Which is a thing I know how to do. Dealing with a murder attack is not a thing I know how to do. A book about an attempted murder might be a way for the almost-murderee to come to grips with the event.”

It is, first and foremost, a book about the sudden, brutal and very nearly successful attempt on his life. No detail is spared in the description of the attack, the pain of his injuries or the indignities they inflicted on him – “in the presence of serious injuries, your body’s privacy ceases to exist… You surrender the captaincy of your ship, so that it won’t sink.” He tells of a long recovery which will always be incomplete. The stab wound to his right eye, “the cruellest blow”, was so deep that the optic nerve was severed, “which meant there would be no possibility of saving the vision. It was gone.”

What struck me most in the early pages was Rushdie’s immediate sense of the inevitable. His first thought when he registered the attacker rushing towards him was, “So it’s you. Here you are.” Thirty years under the threat of death – the fatwa ordered against him in 1989, following the publication of The Satanic Verses – must do that to the strongest spirit.

And yet he writes movingly about having made the conscious decision 20 years earlier no longer to live in the shadow of fear, to escape the oppression of round-the-clock security, and “remake a life of freedom”. In one of the most heartbreaking parts of the book, he talks of achieving freedom “by living like a free man”. The attack may not have ended his life, but it cruelly robbed him of his liberty all over again.

He is haunted by premonition. A few nights before he is stabbed, he dreams of being attacked by a man with a spear. Shifting into the third person, he describes looking at the moon the night before his world changed forever, feeling happy, in love, pleased at having just completed his latest novel. His “life feels good. But we know what he doesn’t know… the happy man by the lake is in mortal danger.” Rushdie is deliberately deploying – so he tells us – the literary device of foreshadowing. In his case, however, it is not his future rushing towards him, but his past: “a masked man with a knife, seeking to carry out a death order from three decades ago… The revenant past, seeking to drag me back in time.”

There is a hint of guilt in the pages, too. Had his insistence on living a carefree life been foolish? In short, did he bring it on himself? As his healing progressed, he was able to reject this notion, though the effort required to do so is discernible. He believes that “we would not be who we are today without the calamities of our yesterdays”, concluding that “to regret what your life has been is the true folly”.

Rushdie also reveals a deep hurt – indeed, he seems surprised to find it still lurking within – caused by those of his peers who failed to stand with him when the fatwa was declared: “Many prominent and non-Muslim people had joined forces with the Islamist attack to say what a bad person I was, John Berger, Germaine Greer, President Jimmy Carter, Roald Dahl and various British Tory grandees.” He writes: “For many years I felt obliged to defend the text of ‘that’ novel and also the character of its author.” By contrast, the outpouring of love and solidarity that flowed to him in the wake of the 2022 attack gave him the strength he needed to recover.

This is a point we should all reflect on, with some shame. It is clear that he sees the response by some to the fatwa not just as a betrayal of himself, but also of the principle of free speech, which he defends with every word he writes. Rushdie argues that the abandonment by progressive forces of the right of individual free speech in favour of the protection of the sensibilities of vulnerable groups has allowed its weaponisation by the far right – it has become “a kind of freedom for bigotry”. In the midst of our modern-day debates about the rights and limits of free speech, we should pay attention to his words.

Rushdie’s memoir, then, is about so much more than the attempted murder of its writer. It is a deep reflection on the transience of happiness, and the fragility of life. It is a celebration of the power – and necessity – of art as the medium through we which we can, and must, make sense of the world and fight back against the worst of human nature. It is an ode to the resilience of the human spirit at its best, the triumph – however clichéd it may seem – of love over hate, and a clarion call of defiance.

As he lay on the floor, bleeding from 15 stab wounds, he was preparing for death – “It was probable that I was dying” – and yet he made a conscious decision to live, to will into being a future “on whose existence that inner part of me was insisting with all the will it possessed”.

This book represents a solitary journey of healing, but it is also a meditation on the troubled times we live in. For Rushdie, writing it was an act of necessity, of personal survival – but through his experience he offers us a clarity that is all too rare.

He reflects on the features of an age in which social media distorts our reality and in which privacy is surrendered. “Something strange has happened to the idea of privacy in our surreal time,” he writes. “It appears to have become… a valueless quality – actually undesirable. If a thing is not made public, it doesn’t really exist.”

Rushdie understands, better than most, the corrosive power of hate. He is excoriating about any religion which seeks to impose a system of belief on those who do not wish to believe: “I have no issue with religion when it occupies this private space… But when religion becomes politicised, even weaponised, then it is everybody’s business, because of its capacity for harm.”

And from the experience of living under a religiously imposed death sentence for 30 years, he understands better than most the demonisation of those we disagree with, a phenomenon all too prevalent today: “I know it is possible to construct an image of a man, a second self, that bears very little resemblance to the first self, but this second self gains credibility because it is repeated over and over again.” There will be few public figures who won’t recognise the dissonance, and danger, of constantly absorbing a version of yourself that is at odds with what and who you feel yourself to be.

It is this observation that ties Rushdie’s past experience to the present. What is cancel culture, after all, if not a modern-day – though obviously less extreme – “fatwa” on those we disagree with? What was exceptional 30 years ago is today commonplace. Again, Rushdie is forcing us, through the lens of his own experience, to confront some deeply uncomfortable truths.

For all the many pressing issues it engages with, one of the most remarkable things about this book is the paucity of anger. There is the sense on almost every page that Rushdie wants any energy he might expend on anger to be invested instead on making the most of his “second shot at life”. In place of anger is a quest to make sense of the senseless. He does not seek to excuse – quite the reverse. He obliterates, with reason and the power of his intellect, the warped logic of the coward who tried to murder him. It is an approach that emasculates his would-be assassin much more effectively than any amount of rage.

In the process of writing this profoundly life-affirming memoir, it is clear that Salman Rushdie has found his own peace. No one deserves it more. For the rest of us, though, his book should have the opposite effect. It should shake us from our complacencies. It should renew our resolve to confront and defeat the forces that led a young man to plunge a knife into an artist. Rushdie has done us a great service in writing this book. It is up to us now to heed its message.

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[See also: Lessons from The World of Yesterday]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger