Tuesday, May 11, 2010
In the article, James Campbell describes Ali's decision to write fiction, especially the Islam Quintet, in light of the recent publication of the final novel in the series, Night of the Golden Butterfly:
When asked if the experience of being a storyteller has softened the rigidity of his stance on the relationship between art and politics, he begins to talk again about his move "sideways" into films and Channel 4. Is he ever troubled by self-doubt? Yes I am. To be fair to myself . . . we had doubts even at the time. I never had any illusions about Stalinism or that style of society. What we hoped was that it would be replaced by something much better, instead of being a total regression. But that didn't happen.
His early non-fiction is stamped with the mark of total self-belief, and faith in the ideology for which he was fighting, which can lead to moments of unintended humour now. In Street Fighting Years, Ali describes how he asked Jagger to write out the words of Street Fighting Man, to be printed in facsimile in the Black Dwarf. He agreed immediately. We photographed the sheet of paper and I threw the original into the wastepaper basket. No one in the office thought this was sacrilegious. The cult of the individual is always a substitute for collective action.
Ali's intention on Thursday was not to vote – for the first time. I can't vote for New Labour, and of course the question of voting Conservative doesn't arise. I'll probably go and spoil my ballot, just so as not to be passive.
Having read the previous installments of the Quintet, I recommend them, and hope that Night of the Butterfly is up to the standard of its predecessors. Ali deserves credit for reinvigorating the tired genre of historical fiction with his own subjective vision of the past. All four are excellent, but I found the poignancy of the The Stone Woman, a novel set during final years of the Ottoman Empire, wherein the collapse of the old world is about to unleash the genocidal demons of a new one, particularly compelling. If there can be said to be a dominant theme that runs through all the novels, it is the horrible consequences that invariably ensue from religious intolerance.
He has not forsaken his opposition to neoliberal economic policies (capitalism, in a word) but is resigned to the fact that the predicted disintegration of the system has not occurred. It's a problem people have had to come to terms with at different times in history: what do you do in a period of defeat? In his case, the realignment took an unexpected form: he turned to writing fiction. The second act of the drama of Tariq Ali opened after the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989.
I had already begun to shift my priorities, which were totally political until the early 1980s, by forming Bandung Films. Jeremy Isaacs, who was then head of Channel 4, asked me to make some programmes. Time to move off the streets and be on the other side, in terms of looking at people and not being one of them. But writing fiction, which involves months of solitary endeavour, was a new sort of commitment. Ali's first novel, Redemption, a roman à clef about feuding Trotskyites in London, was published in 1990. The next year he worked on an entirely different sort of story, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, which entered an imaginative realm no less important to him, the historical world of Islam. It depicts the conflict between Christians and Muslims at the end of the 15th century, during the Spanish inquisition, and was to be the first of a five-part series called the Islam Quintet. It is concluded with the publication this month of Night of the Golden Butterfly.