Rushdie’s memoir is about the graphic details of a tug-of-war between an almost assassination and an almost impossible survival

In a very substantial way, Salman Rushdie’s Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder (Penguin Random House) is a continuation from Joseph Anton: A Memoir (2012), Rushdie’s first memoir dealing with post-fatwa years when death seemed an imminent certainty but he somehow managed to escape its dreaded clutches. In that book, Rushdie quotes Voltaire to convey that writers must live near the borders so that if he angered powerful men, he could cross the border and be safe. But with the prospects of violence having become extraterritorial, it would be no solace in our age.

Rushdie’s assassin came not when he should have but when it looked less and less likely. He came with a knife, with paranoia and certitudes of a fanatic, convinced about the sacrosanct certainty of his mission and had his 27 seconds with the author (on August 12, 2022) at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, where he was slated to speak on how to keep writers safe from harm, and left him almost dead. That he came back from near certain death is as much about the fortuity of circumstances (assassin being not skilled enough, surgeons being skilled enough) as about his own resilience and incorrigible optimism of his family members.

Defending the turf of literature

However, while Joseph Anton was a profound work, written in third person, with factual details in the background and pressing issues of the role of literature in shaping the world, the freedom of an author, the intrepid power of imagination in defying the tentacles of status quo and in renewing the world and most importantly, the power of literature to outlive and outlast tyrannies of all manners in the foreground, Knife is a more personal book. But then the murderous attack on the author was an extremely personal affair. He quotes Henry James’s last words: “So it has come at last, the distinguished thing.” And then he recounts, “Death was coming at me, too, but it didn’t strike me as distinguished. It struck me as anachronistic.”

Knife is about the graphic details of a tug-of-war between an almost assassination and an almost impossible survival, interspersed with intermittent but profound observations on what he knows best and what he is best at doing: defending the turf of literature with fierceness and fearlessness against puritans and fanatics of all manners. This comes out most sharply in his imagined conversation with THE A. (Assassin who failed to assassinate and found himself in an American jail). The imagined conversation is cathartic and therapeutic or catharsis as therapy, but it is also an examination and cross-examination of the motivations that drive an assassin to go for the kill. Paranoia. Self-righteousness. Supremacism. Certitudes. No love life. “A quarrel between those with a sense of humour and those without one.”

At the end of the imagined conversation, Rushdie underlines how art challenges orthodoxy, stands against received ideas, toys with new ideas which could not be in harmony with received ideas and how without art, our ability to think, to see freshly and to renew our world would wither and die. As in Joseph Anton, he cites the tyranny-defying examples of Ovid, Osip Mandelstam and Federico García Lorca who were done in by the Roman Empire, by Joseph Stalin and by the thugs of General Francisco Franco in Spain respectively, but whose art outlasted the tyrannies. This is what art and literature and creativity and freedom are capable of.

The power of love and art

Rushdie’s near-miraculous escape from the certainty of death receives detailed treatment in Knife. His wife, poet-novelist Rachel Eliza Griffiths, stands by him like a rock; his friends and family members stand by him in solidarity. And someone who had been under police protection for far too long with death not being a permanent probability but appearing more and more like imminent certainty, rehabilitation is something that he has experienced before. And even after all the trauma, he has no regrets. He would not like to do things differently. “To regret what your life has been is the true folly,” Rushdie writes.

In Rushdian scheme of things, an author is not without a knife, “Language, too, was a knife. It could cut open the world and reveal its meaning, its inner workings, its secrets, its could call bullshit, open people’s eyes, create beauty. Language was my knife. If I had unexpectedly been caught in an unwanted knife fight, maybe this was the knife I could use to fight back.”

So even though Rushdie repeats in Knife a lot of ideas which appear in Joseph Anton and much before that in Imaginary Homelands (1991), a collection of essays, this book ought to be read as an act of solidarity, as a first-hand account of how dangerous it has always been to be a shaper of words, an arguer with the world, as a reminder of what Milan Kundera calls, “the struggle of memory against forgetting” and as a signifier of the belief in the power of love and the power of art.

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