'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Night of the Golden Butterfly 

It is hard for me to decide whether Tariq Ali is a good novelist or not, although others, such as Fatima Bhutto and Aamer Hussein, believe that he is. I find myself ambivalent about the jarring juxtaposition between his emotional and social insight and the frequent comic narrative devices prevalent in his novels. He cuts against the grain of the sense of serious purpose associated with many great novelists, displaying the irony and cutting humor for which he has long been recognized over the course of several decades of political activity. Perhaps, it is my respect for his political commitment that places the question of his skill as a novelist too close to home. Furthermore, his style is also more akin to the French masters of the 19th Century, like Balzac and Stendhal, as well as possibly chroniclers of the lives of the English gentry, like Trollope, so it is hard for me to judge given my limited exposure to them.

I can, however, confidently say that his novels are enjoyable to read, even as they address difficult and challenging subjects. It is tempting to say, at the risk of incurring his wrath, that Ali is a postmodern novelist, one who manipulates language, history and past experience so as to undermine, if not eradicate, the notion of grand narratives by substituting highly subjective personal ones in their place. I have no doubt that he would be angry with such a characterization, because I did get a rare opportunity to interview him several years ago, and he venomously expressed his contempt for such literary practices. I can still hear my ears ringing when he said, I just hate that! Instead, it is more accurate to say that he is fascinated with the subject of how the grand narratives of history are often subverted by others that his protagonists dismiss or fail to recognize until it was too late.

Clearly, this is one of Ali's major preoccupations in his series of novels known as the Islam Quintet, a series that just concluded with the publication of Night of the Golden Butterfly. In Butterfly, he wistfully contemplates the Pakistani disapora and the degradation of the Pakistan that they left behind. His protagonists are a group of aging Pakistanis who grew up together in Lahore in the late 1950s and early 1960s before leaving for Europe and the US (as he did), never to return except for short visits. He recalls the Lahore of that time with great fondness as a place of intellectual and social ferment, with the leftist characters, much like him, placing their faith in the future in Maoism.

The thread that runs through this group of characters is an intellectual and artist, Mohammed Aflatun, Plato for short. All of them know him, a man who was slightly older, a half generation ahead of them, in Lahore, with one of them, the narrator, Dara, a novelist, subsequently retaining a personal connection with him. Plato, like Dara, spent some time in London in the 1960s and 1970s, becoming a successful artist, known for his ascerbic paintings pillioring the Pakistani elite. Unlike Dara and the other characters of the novel, he returned to Lahore. Even if he was incapable of arresting the ascendency of corruption, Islamic fundamentalism and American clientelism within Pakistan, he preserved a cultural alternative, one rooted in historic Islamic intellectual traditions of tolerance and dissent. Ali relates the toxic effects of these enduring features of Pakistani life in a highly personalized manner, such as, for example, the violence and depravity of the Pakistani officer corps, and the exploitation of antiquated religious practices like Koranic marriage to preserve landed estates for male heirs. He implies that American imperialism gave harsh, outdated religious doctrines a new life in Pakistan after it seemed that they were on the way out during the heyday of 20th Century modernism.

Decades after their time together in Lahore, Plato sets the narrative of the novel in motion by calling Dara, and requesting that Dara write his biography, calling due an old debt. His current lover, the engaging Zaynab, has demanded one. Dara thereafter reestablishes contact with the friends of his youth, and confronts how their lives, and the future of Pakistan, turned out very differently from what they anticipated. Personal and familial achievements have not fully compensated for their failure to attain their idealistic aspirations. And, they live in a European and American world in which their status remains conditional, as Zahid, a surgeon, discovers when Vice President Cheney has him removed from his medical team immediately after 9/11, even though Zahid had saved his life. Ali's prose is clear and sharp, his characterizations devoid of sentimentality, yet empathetic, and his exaltation of the profane is again on display to charming effect.

Interestingly enough, all of the main characters, Dara, Plato, Zahid, Jindie, and Zaynab have created a new elite in exile in contradistinction to the ones that govern Pakistan. Dara is a critically acclaimed novelist, while Plato is a highly regarded artist. Zahid, as noted, is a surgeon, and Jindie, the lost love of Dara's youth, is Zahid's wife. Zaynab comes from a privileged Pakistani family, and finds a way to evade the strictures of a marriage to the Koran, a perverse marriage that even Wahhabi Muslims condemn. It is something worth noting, because it points towards a paradoxical fact: Ali comes from privileged Pakistani origins as well, and his leftism is infused by his anger at the corruption and hypocrisy that he has perpetually encountered. Has his Trotskyism has been a form of leftist refuge that permitted him to retain many of the features of his background in his daily life? Only a diligent and thorough biographer, if one is willing to step forward, can help us answer that question.

One of the most compelling aspects of the novel is Ali's recognition that the adored Maoism of his youth was rooted in Han Chinese nationalism, and hence, could not ultimately provide a model for revolutionary change in the lesser developed world. Here, we hear an echo of his tragic recollection of China's realpolitik decision to align itself with Pakistan when Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) attempted to secede in 1971. Islamic rightists taunted leftists like Ali as they killed and raped the populace, shouting Chairman Mao is with us, not you! He brings this out through the Jindie, a Pakistani Chinese Muslim woman whose family emigrated to Pakistan in the late 19th Century after the Han suppression of a Muslim rebellion in Yunnan province.

Here, too, as he has done in the earlier novels of the Quintet, Ali touches a upon a theme much highlighted by anthropologists in recent decades, the mutability of ethnic identity. In The Art of Not Being Governed, James Scott describes how the hill peoples of Southeast Asia took on new identities, with changes of religion, social organization and language, seemingly at the drop of a hat in response to perils. While the course of Jindie's life is not this extreme, she is, by the end of the novel, a Pakistani Chinese Muslim who has raised a family in the US. What is she? Pakistani? Chinese? Muslim? American? Of course, the answer is that she is all of them, and more, she is, first and foremost, a woman.

Ali has publicly said that he was motivated to become a novelist by his interest in discovering what do you do in a period of defeat? His brilliance lies in his decision to excavate, contemplate and give fictional representation to this subject within the context of Islam and its relationship with Christianity and the West. But his recognition of the importance of the experiences of people like Jindie also suggests that a resurgent left will someday emerge, centered around an understanding that people have a multiplicity of identities beyond the simplistic ones imposed upon them.

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