Salman Rushdie: After the knife attack

April 20 2024 / The Saturday Read

The author’s blurb on Salman Rushdie’s new book, Knife, styled as “Meditations After an Attempted Murder”, describes him as one of the “world’s most acclaimed, award-winning contemporary authors”. True enough. He is also perhaps the most hunted and most resilient: misunderstood, misinterpreted, misread or not read at all. The man who attacked him on stage at the amphitheater in Chautauqua in upstate New York in August 2022 said he’d read a “few pages” of his work. And he delivered his verdict with a knife.

Rushdie, now 76, has lived under a sentence of death since the fatwa was ordered against him in 1989, in the long, troubled aftermath of the publication of The Satanic Verses. (The street protests against the book and its author began in Bradford, England.) Even today Rushdie remains reviled by some as an anti-Islamic heretic but by others, rightly, as a heroic champion of free speech and the open society. Now he is blind in one eye following the near-murderous attack on him, but no one has taken his voice away: he is still speaking and writing well.

I first spoke to Rushdie in spring 1992. I’d recently joined The Bookseller, a venerable trade journal founded in the Victorian age, my first job in London after leaving university. In one of my early weeks there the editor, Louis Baum, said: “I’d like you to do an interview this morning?”

Who with?

“Salman Rushdie.”

Salman Rushdie!?

“Yes, he will call at an agreed time, and I will put you through.”

Baum was well connected in literary London, I discovered as I got to know him, and his partner, Liz Calder, had edited Rushdie.

This was only three years after the fatwa and Rushdie was in deep hiding - or, as Cynthia Ozick once put it, “wrapped in hiddenness”. He was still published and gossiped about but seldom seen. (We know now that he was living in a mansion on Bishop’s Avenue in north London, a billionaires’ road popular with oligarchs and Gulf Arabs.)

I was thrilled to speak to Rushdie whose story and its radiating consequences I’d followed with rapt fascination ever since he went into hiding with a bounty on his head. I met him in person a year or so later when I sat on the same table as him at the Booker Prize dinner; the anonymous man in a tuxedo next to me turned out to be Rushdie’s police protection officer and, as we chatted, he quietly opened his jacket to reveal the handgun he carried.

Rushdie had a reputation back then for extreme arrogance, but I found him courteous and amusing. He was a raconteur but not a tyrannical monologist; I think he spoke a lot about Star Trek that evening, for some reason.

In her piece published today about Rushdie, Nicola Sturgeon, the former First Minister of Scotland and an excellent New Statesman book reviewer, calls Knife “therapy, a healing process for Rushdie’s mind”. After all this time, he remains bitter about those writers, politicians and intellectuals who were reluctant to support him publicly after the fatwa. Or who were even openly contemptuous. He cites John Berger, Germaine Greer, President Jimmy Carter and Roald Dahl as well as various British Tory grandees. He does not mention John le Carre or VS Naipaul, who were both notably dismissive (he was later reconciled with le Carre). When I once mentioned Rushdie to Naipaul, he said: “Why are you asking me about the man who writes like the blind Irishman!” He presumably meant James Joyce.

Sturgeon says that we “we should all reflect on, with some shame” the failure to defend Rushdie and an artist’s right to free expression in an age of creeping censorship and illiberal liberalism (the italics are mine). “In the midst of our modern-day debates about the rights and limits of free speech, we should pay attention to his words,” she writes. I hope they are listening in Scotland as the country is embroiled in a row over the SNP’s authoritarian hate crimes law.