Peter Savodnik Reviews Rushdie's ‘Knife‘ in The Free Press
Salman Rushdie with his wife Eliza in 2023. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes via Getty Images)

Who Saved Salman Rushdie?

In a new memoir, the author wonders if he was to blame for the attack that almost killed him. And whether a greater force protected his life.

In his new memoir, Salman Rushdie describes the moment he glimpsed his would-be murderer closing in on him. 

“My eyes follow the running man as he leaps out of the audience and approaches me,” he writes in Knife

Rushdie, then 75, had just taken the stage at Chautauqua, a resort in upstate New York, when Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey man, stabbed him in the stomach, neck, thigh, chest, and eye. This was August 12, 2022. The author spent almost six weeks in two hospitals, first in Erie, Pennsylvania, then in Manhattan, and was finally discharged late one night, by way of a side door—the better to stay out of view, safe.

Leaving the hospital, Rushdie recalls, was “exhilarating.”

“I made myself a promise while we floated through the New York night: I’m going to take back as much of my life here as possible, as soon as I possibly can,” he writes.

Later, after he’d been stapled back together, Rushdie envisages the conversation he would have with Matar, who told the New York Post in a jailhouse interview that the writer had “attacked Islam.”

“Can we start with the word ‘disingenuous’?” Rushdie imagines saying to Matar.

“Why?” Matar replies.

“You used it to describe me to the New York Post,” Rushdie explains. “You said you found me to be a disingenuous person.”

“Okay. So? You are.”

But, Rushdie writes, he ultimately decided against meeting the man who almost killed him. The attacker, after all, wasn’t the point. The point was the recovery.

At first, Rushdie’s only thought was to reclaim his previous physical state as much as possible. Walking, urinating, shaving, regaining the use of his left hand, learning to live without his right eye, getting the metal staples out of his neck. 

“Every day I was a little more able to do things for myself,” Rushdie writes. “The day I was able to make it to the toilet, do my good-patient business of emptying my bowels, and then clean myself without a nurse’s help—well, that felt like a liberation.”

This is a recurring theme in Knife, a short book that touches on several meaty questions—why are we here? What is the meaning of love?—but is really about one big thing: the imperative to live. 

At first, he didn’t imagine writing about his ordeal. The tendons in his hand were still healing. 

But then Salman Rushdie did what comes naturally to Salman Rushdie: he started to type. He directed his gaze not at the outside world—the Iranian theocrats who had issued the 1989 fatwa in response to his novel, The Satanic Verses; the thugs, like Hadi Matar, who took the theocrats seriously; the paparazzi; the politicians—but at himself. 

He wanted to know whether he had played some part in his own near-death, as Jimmy Carter, among others, had suggested. (Shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushdie’s death, the former president wrote an embarrassing New York Times op-ed titled “Rushdie’s Book Is an Insult.”) In the weeks following the attack, Rushdie admits, he wondered whether Carter had been right, whether he had brought violence upon himself, and, more than that, whether he had been wrong, in 2000, to move from London to New York and come out of the shadows.

“Did I construct a fool’s paradise for myself and find out, two decades later, just how big a fool I had been?” Rushdie writes. “Had I, so to speak, made myself available for the knife?”

No, he concludes. “To regret what your life has been is the true folly, I told myself, because the person doing the regretting has been shaped by the life he subsequently regrets.”

Most of all, Rushdie wanted to know how the attack would change him, and the life he and his wife, Eliza, had built in New York. Would it make him stronger? When the bandages were removed and he stopped having nightmares—would he have gained anything from all the awfulness? He’s unsure.

In the final pages of the book, Rushdie and Eliza return to the scene of the crime.

“I remembered the question I had asked myself after the attack: Could our happiness survive such a blow?” he writes. “Standing there, on the stage of the Chautauqua amphitheater, I knew the answer. Yes, we had reconstructed our happiness, even if imperfectly.”

It was hard, even for an atheist like Rushdie, to ignore the feeling that had been gnawing at him, that something had guided him invisibly out of the darkness.

After the attack, his wife told him, “people were saying: ‘Some greater force protected you.’ ”

He acknowledges there was something ironic about a nonbeliever confronting the possibility of a higher power after being attacked by a (sort of) believer.

“For half a century I, who believed in science and reason, who had no time for gods and goddesses, had been writing books in which the laws of science were often subverted and people were telepaths, or turned into murderous beasts at night, or fell thirty thousand feet from an airplane and lived and actually grew horns,” Rushdie writes.

He admits he had been playing with, poking fun at, the supernatural, and now the supernatural was poking fun at him.

“No, I don’t believe in miracles, but yes, my books do, and, to use Whitman’s formulation, do I contradict myself?” he asks.

“Very well, then, I contradict myself. I don’t believe in miracles, but my survival is miraculous.”

Peter Savodnik (@petersavodnik) is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Read his piece on the dissident journalist trapped in a Russian prison, “365 Days in the Life of Evan Gershkovich.”

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