Salman Rushdie Describes What He Experienced During The 27 Seconds He Was Attacked With A Knife


Salman Rushdie’s 22nd book, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, is his account of the attack on 12 August 2022 that nearly took his life, but it is much more than that: it is a book about love and optimism and miracles of many kinds. It makes a powerful and necessary defence of the principles of free speech; principles for which Rushdie, over the course of the past 35 years, has paid dearly. But his power as one of the great figures of contemporary literature was never dimmed; what’s more, he never lost his (truly excellent) sense of humour, as he showed when we spoke, he via video call from New York, at London’s Southbank Centre in association with English PEN on 21 April. “Words are the only victors,” Rushdie wrote in his last novel, Victory City. Here is the proof.

Erica Wagner: It’s one thing to undergo what you did, and another to approach it the way you have in Knife. Can you talk a little bit about that process?

Salman Rushdie: Well, for about six months, I wasn’t able to think about writing anything really, and during that period, I wasn’t that keen on writing about the attack. But my agent, Andrew Wylie, who obviously knows me better than I know myself, just told me that I was going to write about it. I said, “You know, actually, no, I’m not,” and he said, “Yes, you are”. And he turned out to be right. Because there was a moment when I was able to sit at my desk again, when it struck me that it would be ludicrous to write some kind of fictional text about something completely different. People would think I was avoiding the question – and actually I would think I was avoiding the question. 

You say it is known that the attack took 27 seconds. What were you aware of in those seconds?

What I didn’t do was lose consciousness. People who were there have said that I was making a lot of noise, that I was screaming with pain. Inside my head, I was not aware of the pain, and I think something about deep shock takes over. So there was a strange disconnect between my inside feeling and my outside behaviour. I was aware of falling down; I was aware of this man basically on top of me, until he was dragged off; and I was aware that there was a lot of blood. And I was aware of it coming out of me. I had a kind of approximate awareness of what was going on, but not an exact one.

The book is dedicated to “the men and women who saved my life”.

Henry [Reese, co-creator of the City of Asylum Pittsburgh Project], who was on stage with me, was the first person to run across the stage and tackle the attacker, and Henry’s not a young man, but a very brave one. And then people from the audience, amazingly, leapt up and helped him, and were it not for that fact, I wouldn’t be here. I was sort of dimly aware of a kind of pile of bodies which was on top of the attacker, and the pile of bodies was kind of heaving, because he was trying to get away. And that pile of bodies is the first thing that saved my life, and then, of course, the helicopter, the gentleman who put a thumb on my neck where the biggest wound was, and then eight hours of surgery with all these brilliant surgeons. So there were a lot of people to thank.

Your wife, Eliza, too, is so much a part of this story – and Knife is also a tribute to love.

We had been together for five and a half years before the attack, and to put it simply, we believed ourselves to be in a love story, and we didn’t particularly want to turn it into a murder story. So this is, in a way, about the love story regaining the podium, and turning the murder story back into a love story, which sort of enfolds the murder attempt. And there’s no question that having her with me gave me colossal strength.

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You describe your meeting with Eliza in the book: there’s an accidental quality about it.

Yes, it was the opening night of the PEN World Voices Festival and we were both on the same programme, and I met her in the green room and was, unsurprisingly, impressed. But then there was an after-party at a nearby hotel, and on the roof terrace there was an inside part and an outside part, with sliding doors in between, and we went out to look at the beautiful night in New York and I was so distracted by her that I didn’t realise that one of the sliding glass doors was shut… and I walked – WHAM! – into the door and fell down, and my glasses cut the bridge of my nose, so there was this little bit of blood trickling down my face, and all I was thinking was, “Don’t faint. Do not f**king pass out!”

People came to help, but in a way it was a kind of comic foreshadowing of the attack, although I fortunately didn’t know that at the time. And I got to my feet and felt a bit – well, more than a bit – embarrassed, but also shaken, and I thought, “I’d better get a taxi”; and she came with me just to make sure I was OK – which she never would have done if I hadn’t knocked myself out. So, you know, good move!

In the book you really go into detail about your injuries and what it took to save you. Why did you want to be so blunt about exactly what happened?

Well, you know, if you’re going to write the book, tell the whole story. I think readers can tell if material is being withheld, and don’t like it. So, ever since the Confessions of Rousseau, which is probably the book that invented the autobiographical memoir as a form, the rule has been, “Tell as much truth as possible. And if that truth is uncomfortable or embarrassing or whatever, never mind.” It is a bit like undressing in public, and actually, I had to do quite a lot of undressing in public, so I had practice. I thought I would just say, “This is what happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” – I guess trying to make the reader go through the journey with me.

You don’t name your assailant. Can you tell me about that choice?

Actually, in some ways I owe it to Margaret Thatcher. There was a moment during her prime ministership, it was the period when there were IRA attacks around the country, and I remember something she said about wanting to deny the terrorists what she called the oxygen of publicity. That phrase somehow stuck in my head, and I thought, “Well, so this guy had his 27 seconds of fame, and now he should go back to being nobody: I don’t want his name in my book.” So I used this initial “The A”, because I thought there were many things he was: a would-be assassin, he was an assailant, he was an adversary, he was an ass and other words that begin with ass – and end in hole – but I thought just to be discreet and courteous in the book, I would simply refer to him as “The A”.

Well, it was more or less the most interesting piece of the book to try and do, because in a book which is otherwise quite intensely factual, there’s this chapter, 30 pages or so, of fiction. There was a point at which I actually wanted to meet him: I thought, “I just want to sit down in a room with him and ask him some questions,” and then I read about this incident that I include in the book, that Samuel Beckett was the victim of a knife attack, he was knifed in the street in Paris by a pimp with the improbable name of Prudent, and he in fact did go to the man’s trial, and at the end of it said to him, “Why did you do it?” and the only thing the man said to him: “Je ne sais pas, monsieur, je m’excuse”: “I don’t know, I’m sorry”. Well, that’s no use to anybody. And In the end, I thought if I actually were to meet this guy, I would get some banality. I thought it may be better to try to imagine myself into his head: I might get further doing that.

This is somebody who was 24 years old, and he must have known that he was going to be wrecking his life as well as mine. He’s somebody with no previous criminal record, and not on any kind of terrorism watchlist. Just a kid in Fairview, New Jersey. To go from that to murder is a very big jump. And his motivation – what we know about it – seems trivial: that he had read no more than two pages of something I’d written, he doesn’t say what, and that he’d seen a couple of YouTube videos. If I were to write a story in which somebody decided to murder a stranger on the basis of such flimsy pretexts, my publisher would say, “Not good enough, not convincing,” and yet that’s what happened. So I thought: “There’s an empty space in the middle, and I want to try and imagine myself into him so I can try and fill up that space and try and understand why a kid from New Jersey would be willing to murder a total stranger”.

The task you undertook is different from therapy, but what did you gain from writing in this way?

Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor says that you shouldn’t treat illness as metaphor: illness is illness and metaphor is metaphor. And I felt something the same about this: writing is writing and therapy is therapy, and I had a very good therapist. But what it did do, I feel, is it gave me back control of the narrative. So, instead of being a man lying on a stage in a pool of blood, I’m a man writing a book about a man lying on a stage in a pool of blood, and that felt like it gave me back the power, you know? My story. My story that I’m telling in my way. And that felt good.

The trial was delayed, partly because of the publication of this book – and he has pleaded not guilty, despite the fact that there were a thousand witnesses.

I don’t know what will happen. The not-guilty plea is a kind of absurdity, but he has the ability to change that plea at any point. I am told that if indeed there is a trial, the district attorney wants me to testify, and so I will go and do that. My view is: it doesn’t bother me to be in the courtroom with him; it should bother him to be in the courtroom with me.

In Knife, you write, “Maybe my books saved me.” Can you talk a little more about that? 

The fact is that I’m quite down to Earth in my world-view. I don’t believe in miracles, but somehow my books always have. People levitate in my books and people live to the age of 247 and are telepaths and turn into monsters at night, and all of that. I think a lot of that has to do with having grown up in a world in India where all the stories you first hear are kind of fantastic tales: they’re fable-like and magical, and I always thought that that was a good way to approach things and that somehow you could even get closer to the truth about human nature by abandoning realism. And also, I thought: the world has abandoned realism. We don’t live in realism; we live in surrealism. We live in a world in which Boris Johnson can be prime minister of the United Kingdom. And I thought, “Well, in that case, it’s realism that’s the fairy tale, and this way of writing is actually closer to the truth.”

I write somewhere in the book that it’s as if that world, the world of my books, had crossed the frontier from fiction into fact, and maybe the miraculous became available to me in some way. Because so many people have said to me that my survival was a miracle. I don’t believe in any kind of divine hand that reached down and helped me out, but I do believe in other kinds of miracle. I believe in medical miracles; I believe in the miracle of surgeons, and just luck, you know? So much of human life is determined by chance. The fact is that he tried very hard to kill me, but actually he missed. There was a slash right across my neck, but he didn’t cut the artery, or three stab wounds in my torso but he didn’t hit the heart. There were things which could have just ended the story right there, but they didn’t happen. It was a sunny day: if it had been bad weather, the helicopter couldn’t have flown, and if the helicopter couldn’t have flown, I would be dead. So, that combination of chance and skill I think is a better explanation than the irruption of the supernatural.

You call optimism “my great weakness or my great strength”. Is it a quality you’ve always been aware of as central to you?

Yeah. Way back when I was writing Midnight’s Children, there’s a passage there in which optimism is referred to as a disease, and people can be infected by it, and sometimes you get infected for life. And I think that’s what happened to me: I got infected by the optimism disease, and have never entirely lost it, in spite of many reasons to do so, such as the nature of the world. When I wrote my novel Quichotte, the central character is a kind of Candide-like figure who is also excessively optimistic. I remembered that Voltaire’s title is Candide: or, Optimism. So I created this character who was in a way a satire of myself, who was just ludicrously, pathetically optimistic, in the face of all the evidence.

And I think I still have it, you know; I think one of the things that got me through the bad years after the attack on The Satanic Verses began was my conviction that I would find a way out of it, that that wouldn’t be it for me, there would be more. And I think it may have had something to do with my recovery from this attack. I was absolutely determined that I would regain my life.

Free speech is increasingly under threat, from every side. I wonder what you have to say to this moment that we’re in?

I have a very old-fashioned view about this, which is that the defence of free expression begins at the point at which somebody says something you don’t like. That’s not the end point: that’s the starting point, because it’s easy to defend speech that you agree with or to which you are indifferent, but when somebody says something that you really, really don’t like, that’s when you discover if you believe in free speech or not. It’s a very simple thing, but it’s being forgotten. That is what’s enshrined in the First Amendment, you know, and I’m not exactly sure how things are in the UK, but in the United States you feel there’s a younger generation that’s kind of forgetting the value of that, and, often for reasons they would believe to be virtuous, are prepared to suppress kinds of speech with which they don’t sympathise. It’s a slippery slope, is all I’m saying, and look out, because the person slipping down that slope could be you.

In one of my favourite passages from the book, you write, “Art challenges orthodoxy… Without art, our ability to think, to see freshly and to renew our world would wither and die.” In Britain today it feels that art is under attack. It’s seen as a kind of luxury.

Yeah, it is. I remember back in my dim and distant past in advertising, there was a campaign on behalf of a glass manufacturer, of which the slogan was “Imagine life without glass”, and it showed photographs of environments from which all the glass had been removed – buildings with no windows, tables with nothing to drink out of, etc. And I say the same thing: imagine life without art. Imagine a world with no music, with no visual art, no street art, no graffiti, no films, etc. No TV. What kind of a life would that be? And when you start thinking like that, you can see how it’s actually essential to our daily lives, whether it’s a political cartoon or a billboard with a picture on it, or a work of great transcendent genius in music. We all need it every day, and to think of it as some kind of frippery is to misunderstand the nature of human society.

This is an edited version of a conversation that took place at London’s Southbank Centre, in partnership with English PEN, on 21 April. The event, featuring readings from the actors Sanjeev Bhaskar and Anjana Vasan, is available to watch online for free until 28 April at southbankcentre.com

“Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder” is published by Jonathan Cape

[See also: Salman Rushdie’s warning bell]

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