The Clown Must Die: a Review of Rushdie’s Knife

Photograph Source: Elena Ternovaja – CC BY-SA 3.0

“Conversely, imagine “the enemy” as conceived by a man of ressentiment—and here precisely is his deed, his creation: he has conceived “the evil enemy,” “the evil one”—and indeed as the fundamental concept frem which he then derives, as an afterimage and counterinstance, a “good one’—himself.”

– Nietzsche

Salman Rushdie is a funny guy.

I wouldn’t say he’s up there with Martin Amis’s humor though. As chucklesome as The Satanic Verses was — I mean, so many people could probably relate to the dread/anxiety of being on a plane taken over by Islamic fungi-mental terrorists and flown toward some Western tower for ululating jihad; it gives one the giggles to think back on.  And to know how prescient the novel was (1988), what with bin Laden beating back the Russkies for us in Afghanistan, and ol’ 9/11 just up the road, according to the signposts. But Rushdie’s humor is not wisely droll like Amis’s Zone of Interest, with lust and the leisurely life on display right next door to Auschwitz, where they were baking Hansels and Gretels night and day. And to use such falling ash for fertilizer in the cutesome garden next door– vell, vat ribald commentary on the Human Project, ja?  But Rushdie, god love him, is antic and irreverently self-conscious. It’s funny for him to include in his new memoir about his recent stabbing that almost killed him — to include the public domain image from the early film, Le Voyage dans la Lune, with a rocket sticking out the moon’s right eye, recalling for Rushdie being stabbed in the eye and now needing to wear an eye patch.  Is this guy funny or what?

It sets the tone for his ironic musings that follow.

Like when he brings up Nietzsche’s now cliched expression, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”  I’ve been laughing about that silly saying for years.  Me going, aber vat about da cancer, smardypans?  It drains and pains reduces gains and generally kicks the shit out of your inner John Waynes, and you do not feel stronger ven it metastasizes, ja? So, Rushdie, hats off to that one. Although, let’s face it, Kelly Clarkson sure made good use of the maxim in her tribute recovery from heartbreak (uber pop chart topper) and she exposed millions to Nietzsche’s philosophy at a time when we need more backbone in our electorate. Amor fati was back with a vengeance. Eternal Recurrence probably, too.  After all, those pop hits are formulaic.

Now then, back to the matter in hand.

Salman Rushdie’s Knife is entertaining and instructive and, yes, at times piercing, memoir.  I loved it to death. Did I say he was a funny guy?  Not like Richard Pryor doing that mafia stand-up. Not that funny. But pickled tink.

Rushdie starts off by placing the knife attack back to the fatwa pronounced upon him by the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on St. Valentine’s Day 1989. (Hey, another funny guy!) Imagine if the mafia had responded to Richard Pryor by setting his hair on fire and telling he had to say it was from freebasing. (Is that funny, fuck, they’d ask him.) Back on August 12, 2022, Rushdie was up among the comfortably numb middle class ‘lefties’ in Chautauqua, NY, to deliver a lucrative speech to the nodding admirers: “I was attacked and almost killed by a young man with a knife just after I came out on stage at the amphitheater in Chautauqua to talk about the importance of keeping writers safe from harm.” Isn’t that a kick in the head? Jesus, postmodern, post-Truth, and post-ironic. We’re out there now, man.

I paused and wondered if when Rushdie saw the rocket coming at his eye he didn’t have hallucinatory visions of being on that exploding plane again in Verses and falling jocularly through the sky, as his head exploded in pain, shock and awe. Ululating trills of terror?  Remember me? the 24 year-old man, not even a naughty mote in his old man’s eye at the time of the fatwa, might have taunted him. Thirty-three and a half years later, after the fatwa was supposedly lifted (wink), here was “the A.,” as Rushdie refers to him throughout the book, coming at him like a batshit crazy flying monkey from Oz to perform a little gain-of-function on his face with — a knife!

But no. The 70-something Rushdie stands still as the Holy Man “approaching fast…a sort of time traveler, a murderous ghost from the past.” Unable to defend himself from the blows and the knife and the oncoming darkness he fell to the floor, the crowd slowly thawing from their numbness like Soviet states after the collapse of the Union. Rushdie almost certainly would have been finished off, like a goat dressed to the nines for Eid al-Adha, maaaa! but for the quick actions of old man Henry Reese, who subdued the A. and held him down long enough for others from the audience to join the arresting scrum. Rushdie tells the reader:

“[T]hat morning I experienced both the worst and best of human nature, almost simultaneously.  This is who we are as a species: We contain within ourselves both the possibility of murdering an old stranger for almost no reason—the capacity in Shakespeare’s Iago which Coleridge called “motiveless Malignity”—and we also contain the antidote to that disease—courage, selflessness, the willingness to risk oneself to help that old stranger lying on the ground.”

I dunno, but it read like Henry Reese did the heavy lifting in this hero improv.

Speaking of improv, I have been watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, for it is in its last season and I wanted to be part of the goodbye set who could say they were there, in front of a TV somewhere — at home, or privilege lounge at an airport — when the last episode aired. I recalled that David had somehow conned Rushdie to be on the show to make fun of fatwas.  That was back in 2017, Season 9, Episode 3. David had decided to write a musical comedy called Fatwa! The Musical and gets himself fatwahed by a TV mullah and “has to” begin wearing a disguise.  He asks Salman Rushdie to come on the show and dole out advice on longevity, and Rushdie graciously does so, and advises David to toss the disguise and be a man of danger looking death in the eyes. David is unconvinced until Rushdie points out the bennies: women attracted to fatals. Danger sex, says Rushdie, is “the best sex there is.”

This is important. Well, maybe, maybe not.  As Rushdie, recovering in his hospital bed, tries to understand what motivated “the A.” to come after him.  He remembers how on October 14, 1994, six years after the announcement of his Nobel Prize, the eighty-two-year-old Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz was viciously attacked by knife after leaving his favorite cafe in Cairo. Rushdie recalling that he’d read the attack was due to Mahfouz’s open support for him after The Satanic Verses led to a fatwa. Rushdie quotes from Mahfouz’s book, On Rushdie:

“The veritable terrorism of which he is a target is unjustifiable, indefensible. One idea can only be opposed by other ideas. Even if the punishment is carried out, the idea as well as the book will remain.”

This championing of ideas and the freedom of expression and of free thought becomes a kind of leit motif for the memoir. And, of course, Rushdie still feels bad that Mahfouz took a hit on his behalf.

But it makes one wonder if his Curb appearance wasn’t a catalyst for the attack by “the A.” Rushdie imagines that it was “the A.” coming under the influence of “Imam Yutubi.”  He is referencing the Islamic fundamentalist drivel that somehow escapes hate moderators. (But upload a tiny clip from Blazing Saddles and see what happens, White Bread.) It also makes you wonder if Larry David’s days are numbered, set up by the Devil Salman Rushdie’s appearance on the comedy.  They may come at a time of their choosing. He might want to change his disguise to dreadlocks and go about talking rastafarian bullshit, smoking an e-bong, and carrying on about Marcus Garvey, and the Italian women that His Highness Haile Selassie “befriended.”

Reading on, I’m impressed to discover someone who digs Bob Dylan’s underappreciated (in my humble O) song, “Love Minus Zero”  apparently as much as I do. Although, of course, I worry if such sympathy (for the Devil) could see on a very fatwa list.  What if they decide to take out everyone that Rushdie ever knew.  (Of course, if he were, in fact, the Devil then this would be a good thing.) A similar electric glide in simpatico blue comes when he brings up Chatauquas of the 60s and references that road classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Jesus, that was a swell book. I get teary sometimes thinking about my salad days.

Knife is full of witty gems. Excellent reading. Almost worth being stabbed for — to get such wisdom percolating. I ran out and got the audiobook, wanting to hear the author’s poignant tale from the horse’s mouth.

We read about how he met his current spouse, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, the poet and novelist.  He describes how they met and how they promised to each give love one more try, both having been spurned and burned before (I thought: Kelly Clarkson again!).  They had separately attended a Black Lives Matter candlelight vigil in memory of Trevor Martin and then met at drinks gathering on the rooftop of a nearby apartment building.  That’s when another Larry David moment occurred; Rushdie walked into a plate glass window and dropped like a sack of Army-issued powdered eggs to the floor.  It was humiliating. Eliza. who had up to that moment, been a new platonic friend, swooped to the rescue and saw the Devil home.  They’ve been together ever since.  Now that’s a love story. (If you are curious, the Curb episode was The Glass Door, Season 11, Ep.1).

However, maybe the best section of the memoir is Rushdie’s chapter-long imagined interrogation of “the A.” He has the lad locked up in his mind and he can’t go anywhere until he answers some questions. Over four sessions he god cops and bad cops responses out of the lazy ignoramus in love with self-righteousness.  Early on, in the imaginary scene, “the A.” tells Rushdie he attacked him because he is “disingenuous.”  Rushdie susses this out:

R: Can I ask you about the word “disingenuous”?

“A.”: I see. You are condescending to me.

R: I’m asking you to tell me what you understand by the word.

“A.”: It means you pretend to be telling the truth when you’re not.

R: Yes, it does.

“A.”: So—fuck you, Mr. Smartypants.

Rushdie is curious about what changed “A.” from the purportedly gentle harmless creature into a killer.  What radicalized him?  He asks:

R: So, in your opinion, I am not only disingenuous, I am the Devil. Is that why it’s right to kill me?

“A.”: You are only a little devil—don’t flatter yourself. But even a little devil is a devil.

R: And devils must be destroyed?

“A.”: Yes.

R: These are views you have held for a long time? Or are these new


Rushdie wants to know where he obtained such: radical views

R: From books? From people?

“A.”: From Imam Yutubi

“A.” is not too happy to have his interrogator suggest he has no girlfriend. Rushdie pushes on, going after the real motive:

An incel is angry about being a virgin. You’re an angry guy. Six billion enemies, zero friends, zero-plus lovers. Furious. So many resentments. I’m just wondering who you were really trying to kill. Some girl who brushed you off? Some guy at the gym or on the Israeli border? Maybe your mother? That’s what one of my friends thinks, and she’s a lot smarter than me. Was I the proxy murderee? Whose face did you see when you were stabbing me?

There is a telling silence. We imagine a new fatwa developing. Rushdie is clowning him.

The memoir is divided into two parts, each with several chapters.  PART ONE: The Angel of Death, recounts the background to the event, the event itself, and the survival and recovery from wounds. PART TWO: The Angel of Life, ponders the reasons for the attack and has the imaginary interrogation, while also detailing how the attack affected Eliza, and Rushdie’s friends, and his life in general.  In the end, we get Closure, the last chapter, which features last thoughts (no spoilers) and a return trip, with Eliza, to Chautauqua.

I highly recommend the satire-defending, freedom-warrior memoir, Knife.  And watch your back: There are a lot of assholes out there. Roiling and seething with self-righteousness and rigidly serious. In other words, -pathos.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.