Songs of Blood and Sword, By Fatima Bhutto

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In 1979, as Pakistan's first-elected president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, languished in the death cells of Rawalpindi Prison, deposed, enfeebled, his teeth rotting and his daily meal spiked with "shards of glass", he penned a letter to his sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, suggesting his will was not yet been broken: "If you do not avenge my murder, you are not my sons".

Bhutto's command, rather like the King of Denmark's ghostly visitation upon Hamlet, and now recounted by his granddaughter, Fatima Bhutto, in her memoir, sparked a ferocious, murderous family feud in the four decades following his execution. The fight shows no sign of ending, especially now, after this book virtually accuses the current Pakistani president, Asif Zardari, of sanctioning Murtaza's murder, with his late wife, Benazir Bhutto (Fatima's aunt) as accomplice.

The Bhutto brothers die trying to clear their father's name, as the founder and leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Following their exile from Pakistan after launching an 'armed struggle' against Zia, Shahnawaz was found poisoned in Cannes, aged 26, while Murtaza was killed in a police shoot-out, on his return to Pakistan, aged 42. Benazir, their eldest sister, served two terms as prime minister before her assassination, at 54.

The life story Bhutto tells is a blend of her own combined with her father's, and a history of their feudal dynasty. She argues, in her memoir, that there is still something rotten in the state of Pakistan. As much as this is a loving portrait of Murtaza, it also reads as a hate-filled exposé of Benazir and her husband. Once Fatima's favourite aunt, nicknamed Pinky, Benazir is shown as a rapacious woman who may have had a hand in her brothers' deaths. The trouble with these dichotomous portraits of good sibling/evil sibling is that they are crassly over-simplified.

She presents her father as a picture of political purity. His factional offshoot of the PPP - Shaheed Bhutto, founded after a fall out with Benazir - was fiercely idealistic. Yet Murtaza was not as wholesome as she argues. He was representative of the "lost dreams of the PPP", she says, but skates over the violence espoused by his party.

William Dalrymple has written that Murtaza was "alleged to have sentenced to death several former associates", and under the guidance of Yasser Arafat, he and Shahnawaz received arms and training. Bhutto argues that Murtaza attempted to drive the party back to the fine socialist principles on which it was founded by Zulfikar, but the latter cut a compromised figure by the time he was executed, having amended the constitution to enhance his powers.

Benazir's rule was mired in corruption, Fatima asserts, with descriptions that often descend into puerile gibing: Benazir could not read Urdu, she kept stack of Mills & Boons in her bedroom, she donned the headscarf to attract votes. Blame for Pakistan's sorry state of affairs is parked squarely on her grave.

At other times, the Bhuttos appear coddled: Pakistani versions of the Carringtons, Ewings and Kennedys rolled into one, with their American education, their breeding, jetset lives and presidential buddies (who often endow Bhutto exiles with a free home and a state car).

Bhutto occasionally employs a language of pulpy romanticism to describe her favourite relatives, with ample mentions of daddy's favourite colognes and suits, her grandmother's "chiselled cheekbones" and the tall, beautiful Della, Murtaza's Greek lover, who, when trapped in a former abusive marriage, "became a model." Naturally.

Yet this is, in spite of the shortcomings, a story with dazzling twists and turns told by a true-blue member of the Bhutto fold, with its family history of idealism, political betrayal, murder, hubris and paranoia. Yet another Bhutto seeks vengeance, though this time with a pen, not the sword.