New Book Is Good But Uneven

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

There’s a moment in Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Knife: Meditations after an attempted murder, It looks like a Rorschach test. A few weeks after a young man stabbed Rushdie multiple times at an event in Chautauqua, New York, Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, visited the recovering writer and told him: “One day, you will write about it, of course. » Hurdles Rushdie. Wylie repeats: “You will write about it. » Some readers may view Wylie’s comment as comfort from a friend who knows and loves the artist: Sorry I almost died, but at least unlike most people you can get something out of it. Those familiar with Wylie’s reputation as “the jackal” of American publishing, however, might consider his comment as career advice for a great man: Write it; I can resell it all – and that will establish you as a near-martyr of free speech.

How you answer this test may have to do with which Rushdie you think is writing this memoir – because there are many Rushdies, as the man himself knows well. There is the great writer Rushdie, the often brilliant, if uneven, novelist who was nominated for the Booker Prize seven times, won it once, and is the rightful heir to Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Grass. There is the great man Rushdie, the historical figure knighted by Queen Elizabeth, best known for living much of his life under threat of death. There is “the freedom-loving Barbie doll, Free Expression Rushdie,” as the author says in Knife, who, after Ayatollah Khomeini slapped him with a fatwa in 1989, became a defender of free speech. There is also Celebrity Rushdie, the bon vivant who likes to rub shoulders with Václav Havel and Bono, who made appearances in Bridget Jones’s Diary And Calm your enthusiasm, and whose marriage to model and cooking show host Padma Lakshmi was the subject of dispute in the couple’s respective memoirs. More recently, there is the “quasi-martyr” Rushdie (an epithet the author uses in Knife), an aging public intellectual who almost died on August 12, 2022.

So it is fair to ask: what did Rushdie write? Knife? Is this exciting new memoir the work of a man ensuring his legacy? Or of a man reflecting on a writing life interrupted by events stranger than fiction? Knife concerns in part – and in a certain sense itself East-a battle between the two most eminent Rushdies: the great writer and the great man, the artist and the defender, the private person and the public figure. At its best, the book is about what it was like for someone who considers himself a writer by vocation and a free speech activist by conscription to try to make art, let alone make a living , in extraordinary circumstances. At worst, Knife can leave the reader unsure which Rushdie he is talking about, which Rushdie we should remember.

In August 2022, just before the stabbing, Rushdie, then aged 75, was preparing to publish his 15th novel, City of Victory. He also had notes for a 16th, to draw inspiration from those of Franz Kafka. The castle and that of Thomas Mann The Magic Mountain. But after the stabbing, fiction had to wait: “Something immense and unfictional happened to me,” Rushdie writes in Knife. “Until I deal with the attack, I won’t be able to write anything else.”

Rushdie’s resentment at the thought of wasting precious months on his fiction is understandable. Since the fatwa, the author, who often prefers to transmute autobiographical material into fabulism, is confronted with a problem: his real life is so absurd that it demands to be printed. What writer worth their salt would let someone else tell their own story? People have tried: Márquez once asked his agent to call Wylie to tell him he was writing a novelization of Rushdie’s life, much to the latter’s dismay. A zealous Rushdie even won an apology from a police driver after taking legal action over false statements in the driver’s book. His desire to control his own history may explain why his 2012 book about his years hidden under the fatwa. Joseph Anton: a memoir, was so naive, a tome of grievances and reproaches; it was the great man Rushdie claiming his own existence as intellectual property.

As Joseph Antoine, Knife is Rushdie’s attempt to confront an absurd and traumatic event, “to take ownership of what happened, to take responsibility for it”, an attempt to “respond to violence with art”. Contrary to Joseph Antoine, Knife is tense, readable and, fortunately, not mean-spirited. In 209 pages, Rushdie recounts the hellish morning at Chautauqua, two hospital stays and a year of rehabilitation. During those 13 months, Rushdie underwent surgery on his neck, hand, eyes, liver and abdomen. He had his right eye stitched up, endured months of physical therapy to regain use of his left hand, weathered a cancer scare and published City of Victory. He also completed Knife. Meanwhile, the “angel of death”, as he writes, visits his writer friends: Milan Kundera and Martin Amis died last year, Paul Auster is seriously ill and the “little brother in literature » by Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, became paralyzed.

Given the circumstances, it’s miraculous that anyone manages to write anything coherent about such recent trauma, let alone anything good. And Knife is often good. The first chapter, in which Rushdie recounts the attack itself, contains some of the most precise and chilling prose of his career. Remembering the sight of the black-clad figure walking toward the stage, Rushdie remembers thinking, “So it’s you.” There you are,” then “Why now, after all these years?” » His potential assassin is “a kind of time traveler, a murderous ghost from the past”. In recent decades, Rushdie has acted as if the fatwa still in force did not weigh on him: “I obtained freedom by living as a free man,” he wrote, but the attacker, Hadi Matar, that Rushdie only refers to it as “the A.” – “I found myself thinking of him, perhaps forgivably, as an ass,” he writes – is a negation of Rushdie’s asserted freedom, a violent reality cutting through the illusion he has maintained for decades. Asking why he froze on the path to Matar, Rushdie writes: “The targets of violence experience a crisis in their understanding of reality. » The artist Rushdie always excelled in this kind of writing, in the way of giving personal meaning to spectacle and terror, whether he was describing India and Pakistan going to war, the extremists of Khalistan hijacking a plane or driver assassinating anti-terrorism officer in Kashmir; “reality,” he wrote, “is not it realistic.” Indeed, Knife is at its peak when Rushdie-the-novelist recounts material from his own life.

The most daring of these novelistic acts comes when Rushdie writes about A., the 24-year-old American of Lebanese origin, who told reporters that he had read only two pages of Rushdie’s writings and watched videos on YouTube before embarking on his deadly mission. . Rushdie obsesses over the gaps in A.’s story, the opportunities for characterization, the strangely literary fact that he and A. spent only 27 seconds together but are now attached for life. By revealing that A. canceled his boxing gym membership the day before he arrived in Chautauqua, Rushdie registers A.’s awareness that he was ending his own young life while attempting to end that of the author. Rushdie marvels darkly at the fact that A.’s bag on the The morning of the attack was filled with an assortment of knives, as if the young man was waiting to make his final choice that day, a chef selecting the appropriate instrument.

In the remarkable chapter of the memoir, Rushdie imagines himself having a series of conversations in the Chautauqua County jail with the A. He seeks to present his attacker as a literary character, “to make him up, to make him real,” and to asks if the A. . is like OthelloIs it Iago, a despised man who has become destructive, or André Gide’s Lafcadio, who murders “without reason”? Rushdie delights in things that would be funny if it hadn’t almost killed him. The fictional A. says that Imam Yutubi radicalized him. Noticing Matar’s stated bizarre motive – he found the author “dishonest” – Rushdie Quotes The princess to marry to A.: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think. As Rushdie wrote in “Is Nothing Sacred?” “, the speech that Harold Pinter gave on his behalf in 1990, less than a year after the fatwa, since Rushdie could not appear in public at the time, “the most secular of authors should be able to present a portrait sympathetic of a fervent believer. Here is not the first time that Rushdie has drawn such a believer. As Shakespeare gave Iago some very good lines – “I am not what I am” – Rushdie gives a few to the A.: “You are but a little devil – do not flatter yourself” and “ At school, there is this experiment with iron filings. and a magnet. When you point at the magnet, all the iron filings line up… The magnet is God. If you are made of iron, you will point in the right direction. And the iron is faith. At this point in Knife, the great writer Rushdie works in the service of free expression Rushdie. The novelist uses his vast literary talents to explore what cannot be conveyed through polemic: the image of two people, of two lives, caught in civilizational forces that exceed them. How tragic, how absurd; how very Rushdie-ish.

The rest of Knife is less precise than the material on the A. The word meditations in the title may be a preemptive defense against the charge that, as a complete work, Knife is somewhat unfinished. But the lack of clarity in KnifeThe mission may seem distracting. At first, Rushdie said Knife will try to make sense of his imminent death: “Whatever the motive for the attack, it was not…

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With a penchant for words, Eleon Smith began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class.After interning at the New York Times, Smith landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim.Though writing is his passion, Eleon also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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