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Book review: Knife: Meditations after an attempted murder by Salman Rushdie

by
07 June 2024

Stephen Cherry reads Salman Rushdie on nearly being murdered

SALMAN RUSHDIE is bonded to religion by the actions of fundamentalists. The 1989 fatwa calling for his life thrust him into expensive hiding for many lonely years. In August 2022, an assailant attacked him with a knife for a frenzied and life-changing 27 seconds — long enough, Rushdie wryly observes, to say the Lord’s Prayer.

Knife is a first-person memoir in which he recounts his horrific experiences and celebrates the love of his wife, Eliza. He also narrates his recovery and praises the many whose care and expertise gave him a new life. Characteristically, there are many illuminating connections with literary works and their writers. Memories that shape his thinking include lunch with Günter Grass in Berlin and poker with Martin Amis. I was surprised and delighted when he quoted The Wind in the Willows — never until now having come out with my view that it’s a wonderful book, for adults.

Literature is Rushdie’s world. He is a man of letters and the imagination, of vital articulacy, razor-sharp wit, and a ruthlessness when it comes to truth-seeking and candour which is famously unnerving. He is a quester and jester with a pen and a mission.

In Knife, he takes the opportunity to put his cards on the table regarding God and religion. He has “no need of commandments, popes, or god-men of any sort. . . God did not hand down morality to us. We created God to embody our moral instincts.” Faith is fine for those who believe, provided that they keep it private and don’t expect their beliefs to constrain others. Unsurprisingly, he is implacably against any weaponising of religion.

But that is not quite the end of the story of Rushdie’s relationship with religion. He still derives solace and inspiration from the aesthetic expressions of the great faiths. King’s College Chapel and its choir get an honourable mention, alongside the language of the King James Bible, The Conference of the Birds, and Michelangelo.

alamySalman Rushdie attends the Book Fair in Turin, Italy, last month

Perhaps the most interesting chapter, and they are all very interesting, is the one in which he writes about “A.”, his assailant. Unlike some victims, but like many others, Rushdie has no desire to meet the one who inflicted his harm. Rushdie, instead, writes an extended imaginary dialogue: a passage that far exceeds in length the amount of Rushdie’s work which A. had read before the attack.

So, dare we ask, does Rushdie forgive? In an imagined statement to A. he writes: “I don’t forgive you. I don’t not forgive you. You are simply irrelevant to me.” It is a quotation that needs to appear on an exam paper, followed by the instruction “Discuss.”

Knife is a fascinating, challenging, and ultimately hope-filled book. It has no space for God, but it finds healing and love to be the basis for a happiness that despite being “wounded” is also “strong”.

 
The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is Dean of Chapel, King’s College, Cambridge.


Knife: Meditations after an attempted murder
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape £20 (978-1-78733-479-3)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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