Night of the Golden Butterfly reviewed by Razeshta Sethna for the Herald (Karachi), July 6, 2010
In his latest novel, Tariq Ali traces the relationship between Islam and the West through tumultuous times. The story in Night of the Golden Butterfly begins in present-day “Fatherland”—an unmistakable reference to Pakistan—and travels through China and Europe.
The central theme of the novel, which is Ali’s latest offering as part of his Islam Quintet, revolves around four friends: Dara, Zahid, Plato and Confucius. With a shared passion for poetry, they are comrades in Lahore in the 1960s. Forty years later they are brought together when Plato gets Dara—possibly named after Dara Shikoh, the Mughal-prince-turned-sufi-poet—to write his biography.
A renowned painter but deeply scarred, the reclusive Plato acts as the catalyst in the novel: he sets the pace of events and brings about forced reconciliations in relationships turned sour and awry.
Research for his story brings to the surface the “four cancers of Fatherland”: America, the military, the mullahs and the corruption of politicians. This brazenly political theme continues until the gripping end of the book, which reads almost like a scene from a short documentary film. It narrates how the characters congregate in Lahore to view Plato’s last great triptych, at the centre of which he has depicted “the first dark-skinned leader of the Great Society” with stars and stripes “in a state of cancerous decay” tattooed on his back.
That Ali is an open critic of Barack Obama’s politics is already well known. “The newest imperial chieftain was wearing a button: ‘Yes we can … still destroy countries’”, is how he described Obama’s assumption of power. But in the novel he has gone a step further and poured scorn on American society through the triptych.
Besides such political overtones, the novel explores the place of women in Fatherland. The women we encounter in the book—from Jindie to her ultra-religious daughter, Neelam, married to a general murdered by his compatriots, and
‘Naughty’ Lateef, the wife of another general and hailed as the “Diderot of the Islamic world”—all share a singular quality: resilience in the face of adversity. Without such resilience, life for women in Fatherland would be unbearable.
‘Naughty’, the housewife encouraged by her husband to sleep with powerful men, is “masquerading as a wronged Muslim woman”. She pays a price for her success but earns a fortune on her way to perdition. Zaynap, who Plato is in love with, is married to the Quran in accordance with her family’s feudal tradition. But despite this, when we meet her in the novel she is a vivacious woman in her fifties who is surprisingly politically aware: she doesn’t want to “fan the flames of prejudice” by speaking about her plight in the West. And then there is Jindie. Of Chinese origin and brought up in Lahore, she is historically connected to a mighty rebellion of the Huis in the nineteenth century.
Among the male characters, Dara has the attributes of a clever storyteller. He comments unrelentingly on ‘honour killing’, gender discrimination, corruption and betrayal but, as Ali explains, not for the same reasons the western world does.
Whether Ali is writing about the Muslim rebellion in Yunnan, the current war in Swat or the murder of a disobedient general, politics is deeply embedded in every page of the book. “Fiction, thinly disguised as fact”, is what the writer successfully attempts, often in acerbic language meshed with dark humour, but not at the cost of exuberant and mischievously entertaining characters.
Ali pays perfect attention to detail, reminding the reader of the merits of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Whether describing the bonds of friendship, the sights and sounds of Lahore or the state of Fatherland in the throes of a military dictatorship, the writer’s grip on detail never slackens.
Read Razeshta Sethna’s interview with Tariq Ali here