‘Poet of the Punjab’ – Fatima Bhutto reviews Night of the Golden Butterfly

Night of the Golden Butterfly reviewed by Fatima Bhutto for the New Statesman, April 23, 2010

If Pakistan is a land of untold stories, whispered conspiracy theories and closed-door mutinies, then thank heavens for Tariq Ali, whose access to its innermost secret chambers has made him the country’s finest historian and critic.

Night of the Golden Butterfly is the fifth and final volume of Ali’s Islam quintet. His intricate historical novels have spanned the Moors in Spain, the Ottoman empire, medieval car-tographers in Palermo and the battle for Jerusalem, before finally bringing us to modern-day Lahore, the cultural heart of the “Fatherland” (the name Pakistan is never mentioned), where four college students begin a friendship based on shared Marxist fantasies, a love of Punjabi poetry, irreverence and the hormonal palpitations of young love.

The narrator, the writer Dara—named, one assumes, after Dara Shikoh, the imprisoned Mughal poet and prince—brings the four friends back together decades later, drawing them from London, Paris, Lahore and Beijing. In order to weave their tales together, Ali uses the mystery of Mohammed Aflatun, known as Plato, one of the Fatherland’s most renowned and reclusive painters, who calls in a favour in the form of a biography to be written by his old chum, Dara.

The quest for Plato’s story brings to light the “four cancers of the Fatherland”: America, the military, mullahs and the corruption of politicians. Politics saturates every page, whether Ali is writing about the Muslim rebellion in Yunnan or the current war in Swat, the parties to which he compares to a “hydra-headed beast”. There is the violence of the Fatherland’s rich and powerful—from the Sindhi feudal lords who marry the beautiful and brave Zaynab to the Quran and the authorities’ inept reliance on “Detectives Without Borders” to solve its most notorious murders, through the trigger-happy politicos who knock off a general who has got in their way, to the revenge visited on women who collaborate with foreign enemies.

Ali’s polemics are leavened with subversive wit and mimicry of ludicrous public figures. Look out in particular for a hilarious caricature of Bernard-Henri Lévy and a surreptitious mention of the world’s best-known Muslim apostate, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. read more