where the writers are
Night of the Golden Butterfly by Tariq Ali

Night of the Golden Butterfly is the fifth volume in Tariq Ali's Islam Quintet, so I will have to confess right away that it's the first of the five I have read.  Does this matter?  Probably....but probably not very much.

 

This novel is a coherent work within itself that raises all kinds of interesting questions while providing a flowing narrative style that's fun when it doesn't seem a bit pushed.  The 'pushing' I refer to is the casual way Ali permits himself to drop story elements and characters into the novel not quite willy-nilly, but close.

 

The book is in theory a portrait of an impotent Punjabi painter named Plato, but it's actually more a slice of life, situating the Punjabi cast of characters close to Plato between the brutal "partition" that led to Pakistan's creation and recent events right up to the Obama presidency, and U.S. intrusions into Pakistani life.

 

Our narrator skips along at steady pace, weaving memories and current events into a kind of tapestry.  He's witty and ironic, similar in some ways to Salmon Rushdie and Carlos Fuentes.

 

The world presented is one in which, conveniently, almost everyone seems to have enough money to show up in London, New York, Lahore, Beijing, and Paris.  These are the cosmopolitan Punjabis about whom, I confess, I had not given much previous thought.  They squabble, intermarry, suffer generational dysfunctions, and in one case can trace their lives back to flight from China (and then forward not only to the places I've just mentioned but also to Vietnam and California, two spots that Ali includes in the tale but fails to exploit, which is somewhat careless of him.)

 

"World" literature these days is so interesting because it's so informative, and yet one finds at its core a constant presumption that the culture under the microscope at the moment--Mexican, Punjabi, Quebecois, Afghan, Egyptian, you name it--is in fact the most intriguing culture anywhere...you just didn't know it.  So here we have Punjabi irony, melodrama, worldliness, amnesia, and it's convincingly portrayed but somehow objectively falls short of being the key to all human mythologies pursued by Mr. Casaubon in MIddlemarch.

 

Nonetheless, fiction--and art in general--continues to demonstrate its epistemological utility (I know, that's a silly way of putting it, but it's accurate) by limning the contours of a world (an entire planet) that is dramatically changing.  We are reading about these many passionate cultures now in ways that we didn't before; we are seeing that they are penetrating 'the west' and that the west, of course, is penetrating them; and we are watching, through novels like this one, a global culture struggling to take shape.

 

As academe becomes more abstruse and specialized and silly, art rescues understanding through words, images, biographies, histories and simple descriptions, enabling us to 'feel' what used to be far away, and now creeps closer and closer.

 

Islam is a constant theme through this book; mostly it is mocked and honored in the breech; but books like this make it familiar enough in human terms (through the characters and the readers' response to them) that a great deal of the fear and suspicion that shrouds Islam's global presence is torn away. We need that, especially here in the post-9/11 U.S.   Novels in which Muslims are somewhat feckless, self-centered, well-read non-practitioners of their faith (but still enveloped in its cultural dimension, its mythology, its history) narrow the gulf between "us" and "them."

 

I think this is a good book but not a great one.  It doesn't explore its story-lines with the same thoroughness as Mahfouz' Palace Walk Trilogy, for example.  Its sensuality is romping in and out of bed; a brutal honor killing is more or less blown off--there, done--and so forth.  But what you do get is a sense that cosmopolitan fluency is everywhere these days, and sometimes it speaks Punjabi.