Tariq Ali may still be best known as a 1960s political firebrand but, in latter years, he has reinvented himself as a novelist of distinction. Night of the Golden Butterfly is the fifth volume of his Islam Quintet. Having traced the tortuous relations between the Muslim world and the West in key historical eras, he now takes on the fraught task of tackling it in the present day.
Switching between Pakistan, China and Europe, the central narrative concerns four men—Dara, Zahid, Plato and Confucius—who were intellectual and political comrades in 1960s Lahore and are thrown together more than 40 years later when Plato asks Dara to write his biography.
Dara agrees, but his account focuses less on Plato than on two women: Zaynab, Plato’s mistress, and Jindie, his own first love and the Golden Butterfly of the title. Narrative coherence is not Dara’s forte any more than it is Ali’s and there are far too many digressions such as that on Jindie’s ancestors in 19th-century China. Elsewhere, however, Ali offers a persuasive account of the corruption of contemporary Pakistan, especially the brutal sexual politics, and his wry, ruminative account of lifelong friendship rings with truth.