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Salman Rushdie: Through a Glass Darkly review – a harrowing first-person account of a knife attack
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Salman Rushdie: Through a Glass Darkly review – a harrowing first-person account of a knife attack

‘One of the first things I thought when I saw him coming at me was: ‘Oh, it’s you … ’ I did wonder if someone was going to jump out of an audience one day.” When news broke in August 2022 that the novelist Salman Rushdie had been stabbed by a man who invaded the stage during a literary event in Chautauqua, New York, the impact of what had happened was unique: it was shocking but not surprising. Nobody wondered why on earth anyone would suddenly attack an ageing British-Indian writer.

Salman Rushdie: Through a Glass Darkly gives Rushdie the chance to recall the attack in his own words, as he has in his new memoir, Knife. The film also fills in the backstory, although it sketches it lightly on the assumption that viewers will know it already. In 1988, a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination was imposed on him by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, after the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie at first lived under police protection, not appearing in public; gradually he re-emerged as the threat, it was assumed, subsided.

All this was covered in the 2012 Imagine … documentary The Fatwa – Salman’s Story, presented by Alan Yentob, who also hosts this new film. It includes merely a few extracts from the BBC piece and focuses instead on the attack itself. Rushdie speaks of lying on the ground surrounded by chaos, “a spectacular quantity of blood all around me”, before being helped by a bystander he knows only as The Thumb: “My memory is that he was a big guy. He put his big thumb over the worst injury, which was in my neck. The Thumb did a great deal to help me.”

The 76-year-old, who lost the use of his right eye in the attack, offers self-deprecatingly pithy descriptions of the pain of having his eyelid sewn shut, of the difficulties of having lost his ability to perceive depth – when he pours water now, he sometimes misses the glass – and of the extreme discomfort of having a catheter inserted or a ventilation tube removed. Both the latter experiences prompt the same wry advice: “If you can avoid it, avoid it.”

Rushdie is honest about the main question he had to ask himself as he embarked on the writing of Knife: this thing had happened, it was bad and he naturally wanted to write about it. But what was the story? What was the wider, universal insight that would turn it into a book that would be worth buying and cherishing? “It came to me that really there were two forces in collision here,” says the author, explaining the answer he came up with. “One was the force of violence … The other was the force of love. In the end, the force of love proved to be stronger.”

You may find this sufficient, or you may deem it to be sentimental flummery – though that would perhaps be a harsh judgment to make, having watched Rushdie’s wife Eliza tearfully recall her long vigil at his bedside, followed at long last by an exorcistic trip back to the scene of the crime. The couple stood on the stage where the horror took place to prove that Salman was still standing.

The question Rushdie raises about why the book had to exist, however, applies to this programme about the book. This isn’t an arts documentary where a creator talks about the experiences and emotions that have informed their new masterpiece. The book details the relevant experience, so the programme leans heavily on Rushdie reading extracts from it in voiceover, over illustrative archive clips. We see the works referenced by Rushdie that have relevant themes, some of them literally applicable, some more oblique: the notorious eyeball-slashing effects shot in Un Chien Andalou and the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear; the threat of the blade in Knife in the Water and the opening of possibility afforded by the knife in His Dark Materials; the bargaining with death in The Seventh Seal and the relief of coming home in The Wind in the Willows.

It helps, but with not much emphasis given either to Rushdie’s history or his thoughts on freedom of expression or the modern dangers of being a controversial writer. Those things are discussed, but not to the extent that we hear about Rushdie’s medical treatment. Through a Glass Darkly does feel superfluous in that sense. When he’s not reading from the book, Rushdie is often paraphrasing it in his interview with Yentob. A sequence where a chapter that imagines a conversation between Rushdie and his attacker, here rendered as Rushdie talking to a digital animation of the knifeman, must surely have been less embarrassing on the page. You might be better off reading the book.

Salman Rushdie: Through A Glass Darkly is on BBC Two and iPlayer.

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Source: theguardian.com