Protocols of the Elders of Sodom and other essays, By Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali momentarily puts his politics aside, to write of books, films and sticky wickets
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The Independent Culture

This book is a collection of 36 mid-length articles written by Tariq Ali over the past three decades. It contains book reviews, diary pieces and even the transcripts of conversations between Ali and other writers. It is not a "selected works". Rather, if anything binds the collection together it is a decision generally to eschew overtly political writing (for example, about the current crisis in Pakistan, about which Ali has written elsewhere), in favour of reviews and literary polemics.

Not all of the pieces in the collection succeed. Although it gives the book its memorable title, the opening chapter is an over-long satire to the effect that gay men as well as Zionists might contemplate a return to Israel. (Ali's longer satires, like his worst novel, Redemption, ache. His short jokes sizzle).

Also included is the text of three public dialogues between Ali and Salman Rushdie, Maria Vargas Llosa and Juan Goytisolo. The Rushdie conversation took place at the ICA in London after the publication of Midnight's Children and Shame, when Rushdie was at the top of his game. But large parts of the debate seem to have been conducted between the two writers at monologue length, and the questions from the audience are forgettable. If anything, the exchange detracts from an intelligent review by Ali of Midnight's Children, which is included just 17 pages before.

Other, sharper, essays find as much in Kipling and as little in War and Peace as each deserves. There is also a moving piece in which Ali attends an event in his honour in Diyarbakir in Turkish Kurdistan, only to find that voices which previously advocated self-liberation now pin their hopes on American intervention. The collection includes obituaries for the spy Leopold Trepper, Edward Said, the Situationist Guy Debord, the director Derek Jarman, and even VG Kiernan, who of all his historian contemporaries (EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm) had the widest interests and is now most often forgotten.

The best of the essays either appeared in or were aimed at the London Review of Books, and there is a definite LRB style on show, nostalgic and wistful, even in the non-LRB pieces. Why do so few people read Anthony Powell, Ali asks at one point: "Could it be a result of the provincialisation and marketisation of the cultural life of this country, or the fact the people read less these days?"

The essay I enjoyed most was a review of a recent translation of Cervantes's Don Quixote, which Ali appears to have written in annoyance on reading Harold Bloom's introduction to the same volume. "What is the true object of Quixote's quest?" Bloom asked. "I find that unanswerable." Ali responds that Cervantes was a Jewish convert in the age of the Inquisition. Don Quixote's true antagonist is dogmatic Catholicism and dogma of every description.

Like CLR James, Ali rejoices in the unpredictability of cricket. Another piece teases the MCC-wallahs who run our national game for their determined pursuit of the Texan millionaire Allen Stanford. In June 2008, Stanford's sponsorship of a one-day game against the West Indies was billed as English cricket's solution to the threat of 20/20 cricket, dominated as it was by Indian business. Six months later, Stanford was on the run, accused of fraud running into the billions. What next, Ali asks; a landing strip for the helicopters of Chinese millionaires on the square at Lord's?