Sunday, April 24, 2011

Book Review: 'Night of the Golden Butterfly' by Tariq Ali

Night of the Golden Butterfly (2010)
Tariq Ali (1943-)

 275 pages

Night of the Golden Butterfly is the final novel in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet. Each of the five novels has been set in a different period in the history of Islam and a different location in the Muslim world. (A list of the first four, along with brief descriptions, is included at the bottom of this posting.) This final work of the quintet is centered in Punjab province of modern day Pakistan, though significant time is spent among Pakistani ex-patriots in London and China as well.

The narrator of the novel, Dara, is a Punjabi writer from Lahore; as the story opens, he has agreed, in re-payment for an old favor, to write the life story of a long-time friend and fellow Punjabi, nicknamed Plato. To tell Plato’s story, Dara finds that he must also tell his own and that of a circle of friends who had first come together as regulars at a cafĂ© in Lahore during their student years in the 1960’s, discussing their lives, as well as the social and political situation in Pakistan and internationally. Through an unusual event Plato, at that time in his mid-thirties, became part of this group. The novel develops as a mix of Dara’s own life story, its intersection with the lives of his other friends including Plato, and what he experiences and learns as he gathers the information he needs to complete his task.

The resulting story spans the Eurasian continent, as Dara and several of his friends have emigrated out of Pakistan to Western Europe and China. It also reaches back in time to mid-1800’s China, and the history of a revolution begun by a group of Muslim Chinese and their Han sympathizers in the southern province of Yunnan against the ruling Qing dynasty (who were of the Manchu minority), that led to almost two decades of tense independence for the province. The plot itself evolves fundamentally around a series of misunderstandings --- small ones between friends and large ones between societies, in which politics and social prejudices lead to poor assumptions and decisions with often destructive long-term consequences.

Where the earlier novels in the quintet provided a window into a very specific time and place in the history of Islam, in Night of the Golden Butterfly Ali highlights the similarities of the cultural elite in modern Muslim countries to their counterparts in the non-Muslim world. Dara and his well-off friends display a mixture of worldliness and provincial attitudes, a willingness to travel, explore and understand new places contrasted with a preference for the familiar, that the author seems to want to make clear is no different from people of similar station anywhere in the world.

In contrast to the first four novels in the quintet, this latest one has a much more direct style: Governments, corrupt in the east and hegemonic in the west, along with theocratic fundamentalists, constitute the enemy; most journalists settle for and report the easy answers given by governments; and the majority of people in all countries are unwilling or unable to see past the hypocrisy and misinformation presented to them. These messages are often delivered with a hammer in this novel, compared to the much more subtle approach Ali took in the earlier ones, though the effect may be a result in part of the modern day setting, which makes the political situations and actors more familiar to the reader. But the resulting story has the feel of being built around a strong frustration with the current state of the world; given the events of particularly the last ten years, it could be considered an understandable frustration.

Similar to the rest of the quintet of novels, however, Night of the Golden Butterfly provides western readers with a look into a complex Arab world and history that can often appear in simplified stereotypes in the press and movies. The series, taken together, provides a reader with not only a set of wonderful stories, but also a deeper insight into the history of a part of the world that can often feel remote and mysterious, and realization of the shared human values and desires on both sides of this apparent cultural divide.

Related information:
The other four novels in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet:

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992): In Spain shortly after the fall in 1492 of Granada, the last part of the Iberian Peninsula to be controlled by the Muslims, a Muslim family struggles to adapt in a now Christian dominated society.
The Book of Saladin (1998): In the Near East of the late 12th century, the Muslim leader Saladin unites the Arabs in resisting the Crusades.
The Stone Woman (2001): In a gradually disintegrating Ottoman empire, in 1899, a family reflects the growing divisions of their country.
A Sultan in Palermo (2005): In Palermo, Sicily, in 1153, the Normans have re-taken the island from the Arab, but the Christian king rules as Sultan, preserving much of the Arab culture and many of its practices.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION