News | Berlin, 05/17/2024

‘Love Won This Battle’

The world-famous author Salman Rushdie presented his book “Knife,” published worldwide by Penguin Random House, to some 600 guests at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin yesterday. The only event of its kind in Germany, it was a powerful plea for freedom of speech and the power of love.

Born in India, raised in England, and living in New York since 2000, Salman Rushdie is one of the best-known writers of our time – in part because of his unusual and award-winning works, which have been translated into more than 40 languages. But he also owes his long-standing fame to his book “The Satanic Verses” and the subsequent death sentence, a “fatwa,” issued by Iran’s then revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed – and to a near-fatal knife attack on him in the summer of 2022. Rushdie narrowly survived and will turn 77 next month, on June 19. The fact that he is currently on an international reading tour for his new book is also a miracle from his personal point of view. But Rushdie would not be Rushdie if, even after this attack, he had not maintained his determination to pursue his profession, to write stories about people, to share with the world his thoughts about the world in general and, in this case, about his own fate in particular. In “Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder,” published worldwide in various languages by Penguin Random House and in Germany by Penguin, he describes the traumatic events of the attack and its aftermath for the first time and in striking detail. Yesterday, he presented the book to some 600 guests at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, in conversation with literary agents Marie Kaiser and Thomas Böhm. The event, which was organized by Bertelsmann and its literary format “The Blue Sofa” in cooperation with the Berlin International Literature Festival, the Deutsches Theater Berlin and the German Publishers & Booksellers Association, was the only public event to mark the publication of the book in Germany. It was broadcast live on RBB’s Radioeins and Radio 3. The well-known actor Ulrich Matthes, a member of the Deutsches Theater ensemble, read passages from the book with moving intonation. Also present were Rushdie’s wife, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, who is also an author, and Rushdie’s long-time German translator, Bernhard Robben.

What can an author write?

Hannes Swoboda and Maria Maltschnig from the Karl Renner Institute presented Salman Rushdie (centre) with the Bruno Kreisky Prize for his journalistic oeuvre before the event at the Bertelsmann Representative Office, which he had won in 2022 but was unable to accept due to the assassination attempt.

If it weren’t for the frightening reality behind the book, if it weren’t for the high security measures, and if the famous author hadn’t been wearing glasses with an opaque dark tint on the right lens, as can be seen on the inside of the book cover of “Knife,” it could have been a comparatively normal evening of discussion for the many literature lovers who had gathered at the Deutsches Theater, including the German Minister of Agriculture, Cem Özdemir. But of course it was not a normal discussion evening for the reasons mentioned above, and also because it was about a very fundamental issue, as Salman Rushdie emphasized during the discussion: freedom of expression. What can an author write without being threatened or fearing for his life? In his 15 novels and a collection of stories, Rushdie has always taken a clear stand, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly in the fight for freedom of expression. And even though he was stabbed 15 times in 27 seconds by a darkly masked assailant on stage on August 22, 2022, just before the start of a panel discussion at Chautauquas in New York State that focused on the safety and protection of writers, even though his chances of survival were slim and he was barely conscious, Salman Rushdie, lying on the floor, decided even in this situation: "Live!" He wanted to go on, he did not want to give up, he was not ready to die. – This first chapter of "Knife", read with intensity by Ulrich Matthes, set the scene for the rest of the evening.

And by his own admission, Rushdie was looking forward to it. He wanted to make up for what he had missed – he had been unable to reach out to readers after the publication of his previous book, “Victory City,” because of the attack. “That frustrated me. But now I’m back,” he said, and then willingly answered the moderators’ questions or explained some of the anecdotes from the book. In a clear, friendly voice and a pleasant British accent, he described, for example, the thoughts that went through his head during the assassination (“Why today? Why now after all the years that have passed since the fatwa?”) and why he felt as if he had traveled back in time. He also shared his thoughts about the assassin: “He wasn’t even born when ‘The Satanic Verses’ was published, and he knew nothing about me – a weak motivation for a murder that my editor would never have let me get away with in a book script.” The author did not want the assassin’s name in his book – “it’s my book” – instead calling him A. For assassin or some other word. He talked about the many days of recovery in hospitals and about “Dr. Eye” and “Dr. Liver,” looked back to the past, when he met his current wife by running into a glass door on a roof terrace and she looked after him, about his belief in medical miracles, as he had been one, but not in divine miracles, and then again about the importance of literature: “People are not one-dimensional, they are contradictory and ambivalent. Books show such people. So reading can help people to understand each other better,” said Salman Rushdie.

A feeling of triumph

It was his inimitable manner that, despite all the horrors being discussed, gave last night a downright cheerful air. Of course, the questions and precise descriptions in the quoted chapters created threatening images in the minds of the audience. However, these descriptions were often formulated in a surreal or sarcastic manner, and the interviewee also kept answering questions with a great deal of irony, so that this humor became a theme in itself. And it became clear very quickly: Salman Rushdie wrote “Knife” to fight back, to use his own weapon against the violence that had happened to him: words. Rushdie emphasized that he been practicing using words as a weapon for half a century. Hence the title of the book. It stands not for the knife that almost killed him, but for his knife of words. He deliberately divided his book into two parts: “The Angel of Death” and “The Angel of Life” – with an optimistic ending. It is about death and life, about hate and love. In his case, love was primarily for his wife Eliza, who lovingly and sacrificially cared for him, and for his children. “Love has won,” concluded Rushdie, visibly at peace with himself and satisfied with what he had experienced and put into book form. This is also reflected in the last chapter of the book: Salman Rushdie feels relief, even triumph, when he returns to Chautauquas with his wife Eliza after his recovery. He has come full circle, he is alive. His eloquence, his humor, his irony, his sarcasm remain. The world can be thankful for such a person who, even at almost 77 years of age, is not thinking of stopping. He has started a story about ghosts, a topic he has never written about before; 65 pages are already finished. The Berlin audience thanked Salman Rushdie and sent him, his “German voice” Ulrich Matthes, and the host duo off with a standing ovation and sustained applause.