Book review: Night of the Golden Butterfly by Tariq Ali

Published by Verso, 288 pp, $30, hardcover

It was the late Edward Said who, after reading Tariq Ali’s 1992 historical novel of the fall of Muslim Spain, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, prodded his friend to expand the project into a panoramic series on Islamic civilizations. With the publication of Night of the Golden Butterfly, Ali has satisfyingly and entertainingly concluded his Islam Quintet, a brilliant project unearthing the intellectual, sexual, artistic, and political histories heretofore kept out of mainstream conversation by both conservative Islamists and their former allies, and current enemies, in the West.

Unlike the historical fiction that constitutes the rest of the quintet, Night of the Golden Butterfly is a (mostly) contemporary tale. It’s a testament to Ali’s skills as a storyteller that a novel replete with such up-to-the-second concerns as iPods and disillusionment with Barack Obama fits so well into the sweep of a series that has otherwise featured medieval mapmaking and Saladin’s liberation of Jerusalem. While the new book fits nicely into the firmament of the Quintet, it can also be read as a stand-alone work.

The protagonist, Dara, shares much of Ali’s biography: he is a well-connected, London-based writer, a Punjabi atheist and left-wing critic from a privileged family in post-Partition Pakistan. When we meet him, he is an author in his 60s, and has been contacted by an old friend from his student days in Pakistan—a wildly intelligent, bawdy, anticlerical painter named Plato. Plato has a favour to call in, and wants his life story written by Dara; the project reunites their old circle of friends, long since broken up by the vicissitudes of history, politics, and immigration.

Whereas the series’ previous installments have dealt with Islam west of Mecca (Sicily, Spain, Ottoman Turkey, and Jerusalem), Night widens the geographic scope. Here, in addition to immigrant experiences in the U.S., U.K., and France, we have the Islamic communities of China and Pakistan (though the latter is never once named in the book, but is referred to instead, ironically, as “Fatherland”). This opening up presents the characters with dilemmas of opportunity. At one point Dara leans in to his lover: “ ”˜Westward or Eastward, Zaynab?’ I asked in a whisper,” and the question is a microcosm of hope and fear in a changing world.