Salman Rushdie: ‘We all know we’re dying, but I had a really unpleasant preview in close-up’

Salman Rushdie: ‘We all know we’re dying, but I had a really unpleasant preview in close-up’

“I’m surprised myself, but I’m doing surprisingly well.” Salman Rushdie appears on the screen via video link. One of his glasses has been taped off and he has lost weight, but he looks cheerful and smiley. In August 2022, Rushdie was almost killed when a 24-year-old radicalized Muslim attacked him on a stage in upstate New York, inflicting fifteen stab wounds on him.

Initially there was great fear that Rushdie would not survive the attack, but except for the blind eye and a malfunctioning hand, he has almost recovered. “My hand is doing better, look, I can move it,” says Rushdie, raising his left hand and bringing his fingertips together. “It’s not like it was, the hand feels like it’s not mine. So yes, that eye and that hand are two things I still have to deal with on a daily basis. But other than that I think I can deal with it.”

In an interview with The New Yorker Last year he talked about post-traumatic stress and said that he could not get a letter on paper. But that is also different now: “It took me six months, until then I couldn’t even think about sitting behind a desk again. But I’m a writer, this is what I do and after a while things started to work out again.”

The result is Knifewhich was published on Tuesday, at the same time as the Dutch translation Knife. In it, Rushdie describes in detail what happened to him, how he experienced the attack, how many doctors were at his bedside and what they ‘fixed’ him. He also enters into a fictitious conversation with his attacker, whom he does not want to name and only calls ‘A.’ mentions. In that same interview The New Yorker Rushdie indicated that he had to write this book before he could continue writing again. A non-fiction story in the first person form. Because when someone sticks a knife in you, Rushdie said, it feels like a first-person story.

Rushdie has been receiving death threats since 1989 following a fatwa issued by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini over alleged blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses. It is striking that he now turns his back on fiction. If there is one author who repeatedly advocates the importance of fiction in both his novels and essays, it is Salman Rushdie. “It was impossible for me to fictionalize this, the whole point is that this really happened,” he explains.

Were you dreading the publication of this book?

“I never look forward to the moment of publication, every book that appears feels a bit like undressing in front of an audience that can point at you and laugh at you. Since Rousseau with his Confessions came up, essentially inventing the genre of the memoir, the rule is that you have to be as honest as possible. If you withhold things, the readers won’t accept it. So when you write a book like this you have to tell everything, without embarrassment about personal things and intimacies. And I chose that approach. But of course it’s scary. Scary to be so unprotected.”

In ‘The Satanic Verses’ the character Gabriel says ‘Before you are reborn, you must first die’. Does that thought match your experience?

“Yes, that is indeed what happened to me, only I didn’t die. You know, I shouldn’t have been here. The chance that I wouldn’t make it was very high. You don’t get any closer to death than this.”

‘Mes’ contains a motto by the Irish writer Samuel Beckett: ‘We are different, no longer what we were before yesterday’s disaster’. Do you feel the same way?

“Yes, for the most part, but I don’t think my character has changed that much. How do I say this? When you come so close to death, really have such a close encounter with death right in front of you, then that experience does not go away, even if you recover. A kind of shadow hangs over you, and I have to learn to live with that. We all know we’re going to die, but I had a really unpleasant preview in close-up.”

Do you think you can ever turn this experience into fiction?

“I have to honestly tell you that I don’t know what to answer to this. The only thing I know about fiction is that you should never say “never.” Something can be in your head for a long time and one day you suddenly use it. I think all the important things a writer experiences return at some point in their fiction. In any case, I haven’t found my way into fiction yet. The only fiction I’ve written since the attack is a long story. I don’t know what to do with it yet, not even what to think about it. It is a strange length: 64 pages. Should I turn it into a novella, shorten it into a story, turn it into a novel, or use it in part? I really don’t know yet what fate this story will have.”

Can you tell us something about what the 64 pages are about so far?

“I’ll tell you one thing: it’s a ghost story.”

We all know we’re going to die, but I had a really unpleasant close-up preview

In ‘Mes’ you talk about the moment when the boundary of fiction was crossed. What boundary are you talking about?

“My novels are always full of unlikely events. The attack on me was also an unlikely moment. So it seemed like unlikely events crossed paths, that’s what I felt. Everyone said: it’s a miracle you survived. I don’t believe in miracles, but the fact that I survived the attack is a miracle. But a miracle of science, human skill and perhaps also my will to survive. People also think it’s something religious, that a hand from above saved me. That is not true. There was nothing when I was almost dead.”

Since 2000 you have lived more freely, because you no longer wanted to be limited by the fatwa. Is that freer life now over?

“No. It’s not yet how it was and I have to worry more about security than I did before, but there are precautions and no one has the chance to attack me anymore.”

In ‘Joseph Anton’, about life after the fatwa, you described that people were afraid to be around you. Do you fear that again?

“I was afraid of that at first, but that is not what happened. People have actually become more cordial.”

You have a fictional conversation with A in Mes. Does he represent a bigger story?

“I wanted to do that because he represents a kind of emptiness. He was unknown, he had no criminal record, he was not on a terrorism list. Out of nowhere he suddenly became a murderer. So I thought the writer should intervene here, because someone suddenly becoming a murderer is interesting. That was a conversation I wanted to have in my head. But I don’t see him as part of a bigger picture. In America people are constantly shooting each other, in schools, in the supermarket, in church… Murder is an everyday crime in America, as is mass murder. So I see A. as a boy from New Jersey who decided to take revenge without informing himself.”

I would like to return briefly to the role of fiction. Your novel ‘The Golden Family’ states that fiction is for the elite. Has fiction become a luxury for you too?

“No, of course I don’t think so. Art and imagination are necessary, a world without it is a barren world. But it is important that good stories are told, because we live in a time of lies. The difference between a story and a lie is that a lie aims to be an obstruction to the truth, where fiction is a way of approaching the truth. They look alike, but they are opposites. In this age of lies, fiction is more important than ever.”

You wrote that the word freedom had become a minefield. Does that only apply to the word freedom?

“I think the language is twisted and distorted. This happens on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. The right has tried very hard to take the word freedom into their own hands, but what they essentially mean is capitalism, and freedom for white people. The left has all but abandoned the idea of ​​freedom and is trying to control what is and is not okay to say. If you believe in the freedom of speech, it is complicated when the attack comes from multiple sides.”

Fiction is more important than ever, you say. With the war in Gaza and the widening schism between the West and the Middle East in mind, do you think fiction can play a significant role in this?

“I don’t want to overplay my hand here, there are limits to what fiction can do. The problem, I think, is that there are two narratives at war with each other: the Jewish narrative of their homeland and the Palestinian narrative of their homeland. It is almost impossible, it seems, to connect the two stories, resulting in countless deaths. If you want peace, you have to connect those two stories somehow.”

Is that what your early novels ‘Midnight’s Children’, about India, ‘Shame’ about Pakistan and ‘The Satanic Verses’ did? Changing the view of a country’s history?

“I hope so. In a sense, these are historical novels with which I wanted to correct history. I remember that when I wrote my novel Midnight’s children wrote, Indira Ghandi’s government was talking a lot of nonsense about what was going on in India. I thought, I should tell the truth about how India developed in a novel. Sometimes fiction is the answer to the history presented by a government. You only really knew what was happening in the Soviet Union because of dissident writers, not because of what came out officially. That is the power of literature.”

Did you find it disappointing that Indian Prime Minister Modi, unlike US President Biden, for example, did not denounce the attack on you?

“I didn’t expect an official response from India. But I did receive a lot of personal reactions and the Indian newspapers also wrote about it.”

India was the country that first banned ‘The Satanic Verses’. This would have been a good reason for Modi to embrace you again.

“But I don’t want to be embraced.”

Not by Modi, or by no one?

“Um, well, both.”

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Salman Rushdie in 2019. In every review of his latest book Victory City, the attempt on his life has been discussed so far.