Book Review: Knife // Salman Rushdie

The cover of Knife by Salman Rushdie, focusing on the word 'Knife' with a stylised cut instead of the 'I'.

On 12 August 2022, Salman Rushdie prepared to give a lecture about the importance of keeping writers safe from harm in Chautauqua, New York, when a 24-year-old man from New Jersey rushed the stage and stabbed the author 14 times, one of them through the left eye. Nearly two years after the ironic incident, a one-eyed Rushdie has made a full recovery and is back with his latest book: Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder. 

The highly anticipated autobiographical publication was written, as Rushdie put it in an interview with CBS the day of its release, because he didn’t feel able to write anything else. “The book,” he said, “is my knife. It’s my way of fighting back. It’s a way of taking control of the narrative. Not being just a victim, but being a maker of a book.” How the narrative was ever out of his control or against him is unclear, but one presumes it makes for better publicity than his agent’s suggestion (mentioned in Knife) that he should deal with the attack by writing about it. 

In the Knife’s opening pages, Rushdie ping-pongs between his recollections of the attack, and the “innocent” days before the event: first, the evening before D-day, when unbeknownst to anyone, the killer stalked the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution; then, the day before that when Rushdie allegedly had a premonitory dream where he (suspiciously) found himself in a Roman amphitheater “being attacked by a man with a spear.” From that point on, Rushdie describes his recovery in agonizing detail, discussing the various (and expensive) methods of travel his loved ones took to come see him, including for good measure random anecdotes of moments spent with his famous literary friends before and after the event. 

Of course, details of his recovery and life after the attack were to be expected, but what was not was Rushdie’s apparent need to record his interactions with such minutiae. One passage describes his first catheterization. Another two treat the reader to colonoscopies. Some more recall how he met his wife. The whole is seasoned with feeble attempts at humor: his doctor becomes “Dr. Pain”; his medicine becomes “Evilomycin.” These passages, which bring to mind the banality of Nabokov’s letter to his wife, Vera, go on—without any redeeming prose. Where, one wonders, is the Rushdie of The Satanic Verses? The meat of the matter is far and in between.

But it is there, for those willing to sit through the tepid prose. Rushdie’s exploration of the events through a historical lens – namely Naguib Mahfouz’s stabbing in 1994 – highlights history’s tendency to repeat itself. Similarly, his exploration of the would-be murder weapon through narratives like Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Kafka’s The Trial and Pullman’s Dark Materials allow him to explore the weapon’s symbolism and intimacy. And most interestingly, perhaps, Rushdie perfectly captures the difficulties of arguing with radicals in an imaginary conversation with his attacker. “It doesn’t matter what you say to me,” he has the man say. “We know who you are.”

Sadly, though, even these passages are difficult to approach without reproach. The author’s comparisons tend towards an uncomfortable self-canonization which he has been accused of in the past. Irrelevant mentions of praise he has received are rife; his experience is regularly compared to that of characters in fiction, even when it adds no value to the text; and most egregiously, Rushdie suggests that his experience was comparable to that of Lorca, Mandelstam, and Ovid. One presumes that the unnecessary Latin (learned at Cambridge, no doubt) and poor French (“m’aidez”) were equally intended to heighten the literary gravitas of his book.

At the end of the day, these shortcomings make it hard to see Knife as much more than an attempt to cash in on a financial (as well as reputational) opportunity. The author may have taken a stab at exploring the events and what they mean, but the book contains far too much chaff and far too little wheat. The regular digressions are unconvincingly explained away as “free associative thinking,” but having seen the best of Rushdie, it is safe to say that this is not it. On a scale of Grimus to Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s latest leans more towards Grimus.

Words by Elkyn Ernst

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