The Energy to Imagine Him: On Salman Rushdie’s “Knife”

Shehryar Fazli reviews Salman Rushdie’s “Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder.”

The Energy to Imagine Him: On Salman Rushdie’s “Knife”

Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder by Salman Rushdie. Random House. 224 pages.

THERE IS AN illustration by David Levine that accompanies J. M. Coetzee’s review of The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) in the March 21, 1996, issue of The New York Review of Books. The author of the novel under review, Salman Rushdie, was still in hiding seven years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had called for his assassination for writing The Satanic Verses (1988). Levine’s Rushdie is bedraggled, with a bloated beard and wiry hair spiraling away from his balding head. But why the defiant smile on his lips?

Looking at that illustration now, I’m reminded of a scene in Roberto Bolaño’s epic 2666 (2004) in which a character describes the following little trick: on one side of a piece of cardboard is a drawing of a “little old drunk, laughing,” and on the other, the bars of a prison cell. “When you spun the disk,” the character Charly Cruz says, “the laughing drunk looked like he was behind bars.” Charly and his friend acknowledge that this false imprisonment “isn’t really a laughing matter,” but the friend adds that the drunk was still laughing “maybe because he knew he wasn’t in jail.”

At the time of Levine’s drawing, Rushdie was in a prison of sorts. Moreover, in 1993, The Satanic Verses’ Norwegian publisher had survived three gunshot wounds, the book’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, had been killed two years prior, and the Italian translator had survived a stabbing a little over a week before that. None of this was a laughing matter. Yet that defiant grin perhaps suggested that, despite the considerable costs, art was winning out over tyranny. With every day that Rushdie could continue his work—and The Moor’s Last Sigh was as irreverent toward the powerful as his earlier books were—came an inebriating taste of liberty.

That taste seems sweeter than ever today, not just for the man who survived a knife attack on August 12, 2022, onstage in Chautauqua, New York, but also for those who have followed this vital writer’s work for decades. It’s difficult to overstate the relief I felt on that August 13 when someone forwarded a text from a close friend of Rushdie’s: “HE’S PULLED THROUGH!”

The wait for that message had been long and bleak. Immediately after the attack, a photograph circulated of Rushdie being wheeled to an emergency helicopter; the volume of blood and the places he was bleeding from didn’t look promising. The longer the information gap stretched, the eerier our preparation for a post-Rushdie world became, one we’d feared even after Iran effectively lifted the fatwa in 1998.

Pull through! Pull through! I pleaded over and over, uselessly. To later receive that very affirmation, like a direct response from the macrocosm, was to see the approaching darkness yield a slice of light. Over the ensuing days and months, the news trickled in. He was off the ventilator. He was speaking. He was cracking jokes. He’d lost his right eye forever. He’d attended an event virtually. He was making public appearances and giving interviews. Now, with the release of his 2024 memoir Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, comes a summation of that terrifying period but also, to some extent, of a long, groundbreaking career.


One could break that career down crudely into three phases: pre-fatwa, fatwa, and post-fatwa. In the 1980s, before Khomeini issued the call for death that forced Rushdie into a decade in hiding, the author published Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses, three works of rare imagination and power about the worlds he came from and inhabited: India, Pakistan, and London, respectively.

These books appeared at a fertile time for British literature, with a restless new generation comprised of Jeanette Winterson, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Alan Hollinghurst, who produced dark, heretical works that seemed an affront to Thatcherite Britain’s idea of itself. But an even more provocative and lasting challenge came from a generation of writers whose families had moved to Britain in the waves of migration that began in earnest in the 1950s and accelerated through the 1960s and 1970s.

After the end of World War II came a surge of literature that centered on the decline and fall of the British Empire, including such writers as Paul Scott, J. G. Farrell, Elizabeth Bowen, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. But the 1980s saw writers from the old colonies grapple, in English, with profound changes in personal and national identity that the empire had produced. Following in V. S. Naipaul’s wake were writers like Ben Okri, Caryl Phillips, Hanif Kureishi, and Timothy Mo who flouted whatever remained of an orderly British literary life.

Even in this compelling and crowded field, Rushdie stood apart. The controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses, more attacked than read, has ever since threatened to shroud the indelible mark his work has left. Like James Joyce, like Toni Morrison, he pushed the boundaries of the English language, and his influence is palpable in many outstanding works of British and South Asian fiction, from Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things (1997) to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000). At a 2012 Karachi Literature Festival talk I attended, Kureishi, speaking of British Asian writers, proclaimed, “We are all children of Rushdie.” That this was said in the country whose deadly anti-Rushdie protests had helped create the context for Khomeini’s fatwa made the statement even more valiant and necessary.

This background is important because one of Rushdie’s basic objectives in Knife is to reclaim his role as storyteller rather than being a story told by others. He should be assessed on the basis of his books, and by the same token, Knife should be understood as constituting one more, possibly final, phase of his career. Who is the Rushdie we find here?


Any writer, even one with Rushdie’s exceptional gifts, would have had a hard time remaining at the heights he’d achieved in the 1980s. But it’s conceivable, too, that living in hiding in the 1990s disturbed his output. While his first fatwa-era novel for grownups, The Moor’s Last Sigh, was overall a strong outing, he did something in it that he’d pledged not to do: write “a version of Midnight’s Children every few years,” as a New Yorker profile recently quoted him as saying. For the first time, he’d written a novel in the shadow of Midnight’s Children, seemingly deliberately.

Rushdie’s work took a more noticeable turn after he moved from London to New York City in 2000, not long after Iran effectively lifted the fatwa. Rushdie turned his attention now to the United States, starting with Fury in 2001 and continuing through Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015), The Golden House (2017), and Quichotte (2019), with an interregnum featuring two novels set in Kashmir (2005’s Shalimar the Clown) and Renaissance Florence (2008’s The Enchantress of Florence). As he did so powerfully in The Satanic Verses, Rushdie examined his new surroundings—New York, and the United States in general—through the lives of dislocated South Asians. These later novels don’t, however, offer the textured feel of an American city the way The Satanic Verses did for London.

Rushdie has said that he became a “social butterfly” in New York to lift the climate of fear that others felt around him, to show people that he was safe and that any company he kept was similarly so. Unfortunately, he spread himself similarly thin on the page. In place of the richly interwoven public and private lives that populated his earlier books came a promiscuous smattering of pop-culture allusions that weighed the stories down. Public events no longer shaped character—a major Rushdie theme—but hovered cumbersomely over the action.

Knife is a clear and unsurprising departure. We have a defiant Rushdie, still, but also a vulnerable one. It’s a vulnerability he didn’t allow in his 2012 autobiography Joseph Anton, a highly readable book but whose third-person narration sounds as affected on the page as he would in person. Knife’s Rushdie is, for the first time, an “I,” and the first response in reading it is: finally!

Here is Rushdie wondering if he “can go on finding the novels” to write, determining how to be “functional as a one-eyed man in a two-eyed world,” telling us of the nightmares that wreck his sleep and how important his therapy sessions have been. Here he is screaming in pain as doctors try literally to stitch him back up. Even his sense of resignation when an assassin finally comes, after being a marked man for so many years, feels authentic and poignant: “So it’s you,” he thinks as he watches the man approach. “Here you are.” So too does his account of watching his blood spread on the floor around him and calmly assessing that he’s dying.

In Joseph Anton, one didn’t simply get a removed Rushdie but also often a bitter one, settling scores with people he held in contempt, including critics such as James Wood and ex-wives including Padma Lakshmi, whom he refused to refer to by name. In Knife, we have as tender a Rushdie as we’ve seen, fizzing with love for his wife Rachel Griffiths, for friends, for supporters, and, of course, for the people who saved his life on that stage in Chautauqua. Yes, love has been a motif throughout his work, but here it’s even more essential, a weapon of survival against the hate that put him in that hospital bed.

There is even, one could say, a love of his body or of the human body in general. Rushdie has always been a scatological writer, like his idol James Joyce. The narrator of Midnight’s Children, Saleem Sinai, has a memorably big nose passed down from his grandfather, whose own protruding snout was by turns itchy, bleeding, goo-dripping, and a source of vulnerability, a place where the outside world enters the self but also a source, in its sheer size, of stature and patriarchal power. Now Rushdie turns his characteristic focus on corporeal detail toward his own recovering figure, and the intrusions and protrusions are much more harrowing, such as the catheter that’s inserted into his penis or the unsparing descriptions of his dangling right eye and the pain of the surgeon’s needle as the socket was sutured shut. But his body is also the thing that performs the most radical acts in the story: survival, revival.

The passage of time itself seems to have humbled the author. One of the more affecting aspects of the book is its musings on death, which had either claimed or, at the time of writing, was threatening to claim many of his close friends from that crop of writers who defined an era alongside him. Some of them left much too soon: Bruce Chatwin’s memorial service was held on the very day the fatwa was issued, February 14, 1989; cancer claimed Angela Carter in 1992 at the age of 51, just as it would Christopher Hitchens in 2011 at 62.

But there seems something more mournful about Rushdie’s response to Amis’s death in May 2023. Joseph Anton had depicted moments of tension with Amis, fights at the dinner table during the high-pressure fatwa years. Here, in their twilight, these combative souls drop any hint of their earlier competitiveness and, in the shadow of violence and sickness, express their admiration and love for each other unequivocally. Adding to the general note of tragedy is Kureishi’s collapse in December 2022, which left him paralyzed, and Rushdie’s discovery four days later that his friend and fellow novelist Paul Auster had lung cancer. Auster died at the end of April this year.

In other ways, though, the author of Knife is still the same writer. There are the familiar Rushdie eccentricities, such as capitalizing words to enhance their weight, including his Assailant, would-be Assassin, an “Asinine man who made Assumptions about me, and with whom I had a near-lethal Assignation”—a somewhat overwrought prelude to his decision to refer to the man forevermore as the “Ass” (or “the A.” for short). It’s a familiar Rushdie maneuver, repeating a word or fragment to build up a comically derisive moniker. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, he invokes “frog” three times to describe the croaky voice, fat lips, and hooded eyes of Hindu fanatic Raman Fielding (based on the Indian Hindu fundamentalist leader Bal Thackeray), before eventually christening him the Frog King.

The references to Greek mythology and Shakespeare continue too, and here they’re not merely showy, as they can sometimes feel in his later novels, but rather form the resources that help him understand what has happened to him. The Rushdie wit remains: he wonders, for example, if the A., who brought a variety of knives to the event, had been thinking to “pass them out to the audience and invite them to join in.” Of the knife he never saw, Rushdie says, “It was serviceable enough, that invisible weapon, and it did its work.” Fortunately, not its essential work, and while it may have taken his right eye, a laughing, dancing Rushdie survives.

The repetitive and laborious Rushdie does too. The metaphors can become heavy-handed—as when, on his “last innocent night,” August 11, he stands at a lake in Chautauqua, “alone, wrapped in the night, just the moon and I together.” One of his favorite witticisms reappears: in renouncing any claims to prophecy, he says that he’s had his problems with prophets. This gag was funny on first hearing; in putting it to paper, one hopes he’s at last retiring it.


At its heart, the book asks why? Why was he stabbed now? And why was it Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey resident, born in California to parents who had emigrated from Lebanon—a young man who would have come of age long after the fatwa had been lifted?

Rushdie sounds a tad green addressing himself to these questions. Certainly, the official “threat level” against him had declined to the point that he no longer needed 24-hour state protection. But that was related to Iran’s withdrawal of its death warrant. The attack on Rushdie is part of a larger story of the fragmentation of the jihadist threat, as the organizations and state sponsors that symbolized it for many years have lost ground and a more diffuse infrastructure of small cells, hired guns, and lone nuts has helped fill the breach.

Rushdie believes that 9/11 and the events that followed should have eclipsed the furor over The Satanic Verses, but this is to overlook the peculiar contempt he provokes, even among those who otherwise see themselves as open-minded. Note the reaction to his 2007 knighthood: not only did the Pakistani, Kuwaiti, and Egyptian parliaments condemn the decision; not only did protesters in Malaysia, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere demand that the British government revoke the decision; not only did demonstrators burn Rushdie in effigy and call for attacks against the United Kingdom and the United States, but even some British MPs derided the decision. If time had helped relieve Rushdie of the jitters, there were some wounds it couldn’t heal, whether the events that prompted those wounds were defensible in the first place or not.

Any time that controversy over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad reemerged, including the ghastly Charlie Hebdo murders, I feared that Rushdie would become a target once again, the fatwa a major bit of unfinished business even for a new generation that wasn’t born or self-aware in 1989, but whose members no doubt are told that it all began with The Satanic Verses, whose author lives and roams free.

What we know of Matar is that a 2018 visit to his father in Lebanon seemed to change him into a more withdrawn, devout, and angry young man. At some point, after glancing at a couple of pages of The Satanic Verses and watching YouTube clips of its author, he determined that Salman Rushdie was “disingenuous,” as he told the New York Post in a short interview.

One way to make sense of Matar’s actions, of course, would be to confront him, the way Samuel Beckett confronted the neighborhood pimp who stabbed him in 1938, receiving an “I don’t know, sir. I’m sorry.” Rushdie’s ultimate decision not to meet his attacker is understandable. Instead, he decides to imagine himself into his attacker’s mind, to persuade this fictional A. to spill his motivations in a way that the real Matar might not have. These imagined jail-cell sessions cover the A.’s background (to the extent that it is known), as well as the teachings of a variety of notables, from Islamist radicals to Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon. The dialogue is, however, too partial towards Rushdie’s views to maintain any dialectical vigor. In real life, especially in a jail cell, the exceptionally erudite Rushdie would no doubt have had the edge over this young man. But as a work of the imagination, the encounter misses an opportunity to understand the motives that would drive someone like Matar. Rushdie seems less interested in the reader listening to the A. than to Rushdie. Several of the author’s questions force the prisoner into silence, an apparent acknowledgment of defeat.

There is also a tone deafness, given the context, when Rushdie tells his subject about the Muslim writers who want to “reclaim The Satanic Verses as a capacious work of art.” Are those the words he would really use? At other times, Rushdie imbues the A. with too erudite a voice of his own, as when he responds:

Beneath all your smart talk, you know you are less than a worm. To be crushed beneath our heel. You talk about travel to other countries, but you can’t set foot in half the countries of the world because there is so much hatred for you there. Say something about that, why don’t you.

The scene is more convincing when Rushdie tells his imagined assailant, “And then your running feet took you across the point of no return and there was no way to stop,” though one wishes the revelation had come from the A. himself, allowing him a moment of sincerity, if not remorse.

Matar’s is certainly a “ruined life,” as Rushdie tells his imagined nemesis, but only because he failed. Far from being “undermotivated,” or “looking for a master or an idea that was bigger than [him],” as Rushdie would have it, I suspect that Matar’s action was in part a bid to be extraordinary, to be remembered, to live forever. Tributes from some quarters in Iran, including the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, came soon after the attack, and one can only imagine their volume had he succeeded.

There is a photo of Mumtaz Qadri, the Pakistani police commando, handcuffed and in custody moments after killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer for defending a Christian woman against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. Looking straight at the camera, Qadri’s blissful grin foretells the ecstatic support he would receive from thousands of middle-class Pakistanis for whom Taseer, who had rightly called Pakistan’s provisions against blaspheming Islam and the Prophet Muhammad a “black law,” represented the worst kind of moral corruption. A powerful Islamist movement defending the Prophet’s honor rose after Taseer’s killing, with Qadri as its patron saint. His grave remains a pilgrimage site eight years after the state executed him for Taseer’s murder. In the back of that police van, his smile says he only looks imprisoned.

Qadri’s statement in court read that his murder of an “apostate” was not “contrary to dictums of the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” When Rushdie grills the A. about what he, the A., expected would happen once his mission had been achieved, the terms of the discussion are rigged to our notions of reality and not the fanatic’s. Rushdie is looking for consistency—if the A. has the right to kill Rushdie because he is “against God,” then does he also have the right to kill the millions who similarly don’t follow “[his] God”? Rushdie’s A. replies with, “It depends.” But what if the A. didn’t always take his interrogator’s bait? What if he simply relied on a negative rather than affirmative defense, as Qadri had, that what he did was “not contrary to dictums of the Quran”? One wishes that Rushdie had been more open to the conversation ending in a stalemate, a conclusion that would in fact do justice to the author’s admission at the end of the chapter: “I no longer have the energy to imagine him, just as he never had the ability to imagine me.”

This fictional encounter doesn’t enhance Knife, but it doesn’t break it either. This is Rushdie on a smaller, more intimate scale than we’ve seen before. But compressed in this slim book, his perennial big claims resonate with even more force: the central importance of art to understanding life, the right of artists to be judged by their work, and the enduring status of storytelling as one of the most estimable professions.

Rushdie is physically diminished now and must consider his movements and safety afresh. But he’s still laughing like Bolaño’s drunk. And readers who experienced those chilling 48 hours in mid-August 2022 are in cahoots with him.

LARB Contributor

Shehryar Fazli is an author, political analyst, and essayist who divides his time between Pakistan and Canada. He is the author of the novel Invitation (2011), which was the runner-up for the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival’s first book award. He can be reached via email at [email protected].


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!