The Pen Was Mightier

On August 12, 2022, a man tried to kill Salman Rushdie. As the author prepared to deliver a talk in Chautauqua, N.Y.—on, ironically enough, the importance of keeping writers safe from harm—his assailant leapt up from the audience, ran on stage toward Rushdie, and stabbed him repeatedly in a frenzy of violence that was witnessed by well over a thousand people. Rushdie was later told that the knifeman had 27 seconds with him, during which he inflicted terrible, life-altering wounds that included blinding Rushdie in his right eye and severing much of the feeling in his left hand. As the would-be killer was dragged away, injuring the event’s host Henry Reese in the process, news of the attack was swiftly distributed over the global media. It was widely believed that the injuries were too severe for Rushdie to survive them.

But, thankfully, he did, and although the subsequent days, weeks, and months of recovery and physiotherapy were often gruelling and traumatic, he has now rallied sufficiently to produce his first significant writing since the assault, in the form of a 200-page memoir, Knife. Touching on everything from his life in New York with his fifth wife, the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, to the indignities that he faced during the process of recovering his health, Rushdie has produced what might be termed an anti-misery memoir. Written in direct, at times humorous prose that is considerably more accessible than his previous autobiography, 2012’s tricksy Joseph Anton, Knife tells the story that nobody could ever have wished to tell, of a horrific assault representing the latest chapter in a long series of privations and difficulties that have occurred since he published his ever-controversial novel The Satanic Verses in 1988.

When reviewing Knife, the critic faces a dilemma. There can be no doubt as to the importance of the book, both as a form of catharsis for its author and in its unvarnished retelling of the facts therein. The trial of Rushdie’s would-be assassin—referred to here as “the A.,” never by his name—has since been delayed following publication, and no doubt this will bring a second round of unwelcome publicity and attention into the author’s life, especially if, as he suggests here, he will enter the witness stand, blinded in one eye and with the scars of the knife still visible, and testify as to the horror of what happened to him that August morning. Rushdie’s assailant has declined the opportunity to plead guilty and accept a 30- to 40-year sentence, so his victim will have to appear in court and relive the trauma once again. Still, as the author’s attorney remarks to him, “To have the victim of the assault present would be very powerful.”

Power, then, is a quantity that Knife possesses in spades. Rushdie writes about what happened to him in a clinical yet deeply affecting fashion that produces the classical virtues of pity and terror in equal measure. Few, if any, of his readers will know what it is like to be stabbed viciously and mercilessly in public, just as blessedly small numbers will have any understanding of how it feels to have a sightless eye stitched up forever. And only a truly great writer can produce the bleakest of laughs from his vivid descriptions of the humiliations he underwent: “Dear reader, if you have never had a catheter inserted into your genital organ, do your very best to keep that record intact.” After all, Rushdie has an eye left, and it can wink as well as glare.

The strengths of this book are so vital, then, that it is almost with regret that we must note it has weaknesses, too. Rushdie indulges his usual penchant for games-playing and narrative subversion only once, but it’s the weakest section of the book: a lengthy imagined dialogue with “the A.,” in which the two men converse about what led the failed assassin to commit the actions that he did, and why. In this section, unsurprisingly, Rushdie runs rings round his interlocutor, who is described as a basement-dwelling incel who was radicalized during a visit to Lebanon and came to America fired up with zealous loathing of the man who wrote a blasphemous book, even though, by his own admission, he had barely read any of Rushdie’s writing. Had Rushdie given him a single telling argument or perspective, this part of the book might have been worthwhile, but instead the character has no depth or insight, becoming nothing more than a straw man.

There are other flaws, too. Rushdie’s uxorious treatment of his wife is personally commendable but it reads flatly, a mixture of smugness and strangeness. Did he need to write, after saying “[my family] loved Eliza immediately,” that “they had not been so enthusiastic about one or two of the women who preceded her”? And there is a level of self-regard to some of the name-dropping—a trait that has always been part of Rushdie’s public persona, to a point that it was even mocked during his cameo as himself in Bridget Jones’s Diary—that should have been toned down. It feels both self-congratulatory and queasy to reproduce private emails between Rushdie and the dying Martin Amis, or to offer details of Paul Auster’s failing health, or to observe that, when Rushdie wished to return to New York by private jet for reasons of security, no fewer than three were offered to him by well-heeled friends who were, as he notes, “not from the literary world.” (Bet one was Bono.)

Knife is a book that could so easily never have been written, either because the attack never took place, or because, in an alternative universe, the wounds Rushdie sustained proved to be fatal. (It is a small irony, noted here, that the assailant’s vicious assault was also imprecise; as one doctor remarks, “you’re lucky that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife.”)

Its author has boldly spoken out against cancel culture—as he has all his life and career—and pointedly tweeted at Bernardine Evaristo, the beleaguered president of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature, when she commented that the RSL must remain impartial when it comes to “writers’ controversies and issues,” to say, “Just wondering if the Royal Society of Literature is ‘impartial’ about attempted murder, Bernardine? (Asking for a friend.)” He has earned the right to condemn cant and liberal hand-wringing in a way that few others have, and his anger is bracing.

Knife may not be the year’s best book, but it is probably the most important. Read it, laugh, weep, and then thank whatever cosmic power or deity that you believe in that its author lived to write it. And, undeniably, its very existence is one in the eye for the Iranian regime that has tried and failed to kill Rushdie, too.

Knife: Meditations after an Attempted Murder
by Salman Rushdie
Random House, 209 pp., $28

Alexander Larman is a journalist, historian, and author, most recently, of Power and Glory: Elizabeth II and the Rebirth of Royalty (St. Martin’s Press).

Original News Source – Washington Free Beacon

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