Night of the Golden Butterfly by Tariq Ali

Passions of another Pakistan

Aamer Hussein
Friday 28 May 2010 00:00 BST

Naughty Lateef, a Pakistani housewife who sleeps with powerful men, is "masquerading as a wronged Muslim woman, describing her oppression in lavish detail" in a book of kiss-and-tell memoirs disguised as a denunciation of Muslim norms.

On a French TV show, she finds herself in opposition to a "hijab-clad Maghrebin Frenchwoman". Unexpectedly Yusufa, who wears the hijab as a "gesture of defiance", wins the round, moving her adversary when she recites a verse by the 15th-century Persian poet Jami which uses the veil as metaphor.

Dara, the narrator of this novel, has been asked by his artist-friend Plato to tell the latter's story; but Dara insists he will tell a multi-vocal story and tell it as fiction. Plato serves mostly as a facilitator, bringing Dara back into contact with homeland, and introducing the passionate Zaynab into his life. Dara is a wily storyteller, who simultaneously constructs, and dismantles, orientalist takes on Pakistan: honour killings, gender discrimination, corruption and betrayal - yes: but not for the reasons the Western world assumes. It's the web of political skullduggery Dara decries: he tells the story of his idealistic 1960s youth in the Fatherland (as Pakistan is referred to) and of the companions who sold friends and went off in a rightward direction.

"Fiction, thinly disguised as fact", is only one of Tariq Ali's targets in this wonderfully exuberant and mischievous novel. Naughty pays a price for her success, but earns a fortune on her way to perdition. Zaynab, who really has suffered - in her native Sindh, she's been forced to marry the Koran by her feudal family - refuses to see Islam as the sole enemy (such practices aren't condoned even by extremists). This paradoxically emancipated woman won't go public with her story. But her interview with Naughty successfully narrates gender exploitation from another perspective, linking it to the parallel evils of feudal tradition and bureaucratic corruption, and seeing them overlap with militarism, and militant varieties of Islam.

A third strong woman gives Night of the Golden Butterfly its title: Jindie, the Chinese girl from Lahore, whose life is connected to a mighty rebellion of the Huis in the 19th century. Her ancestor, Du Wenxiu, ruled as Sultan from Dali for ten years. We assume that Jindie will write the history; in the interim, Ali does. He deftly intertwines strands of Chinese-Muslim with Indo-Pakistani history in a work which is, we hope, not just the final novel in his Islam quintet, but the first in a series of subcontinental fictions.

It's a dense novel, chronologically elliptical, teeming with articulate characters who write fiction, memoir or journalism; paint; read Stendahl (profusely quoted by Dara) and Diderot (bowdlerised by Naughty). Traditional Punjabi Sufi verses echo modern Urdu poems by rebel poets including Sahir Ludhianvi, who chose to return to India, and Faiz: Pakistan's lyrical voice of conscience and resilience. Classic Chinese novels, including the erotic Jing Ping Mei, give Ali's writing motifs of corruption and self-interest, and possibly influence its structure.

Ali delights in evoking the timbre of Lahore life: its all-male gatherings of intellectuals, its dives and coffee houses, its mixture of erotic tension and sexual repression; its coded class structure and the desperate desire to rise at any cost. He takes us to the Far East to explore contemporaneous histories. Jindie's brother joins the Cultural Revolution to be robbed of identity and history in a searing depiction of the way the Maoists dealt with their minorities. Ali's prose is often rugged, but he portrays Pakistan in a gentler era, with sexual relationships more romantic, politics more idealistic, consumerism less brash. His nostalgia, however, isn't blinkered: in Ayub Khan's regime he sees the roots of what Pakistan is to become.

This jewel box of a novel, written in the voice of a ribald but tender Punjabi cosmopolitan, ultimately bears the signature of a 20th-century internationalist. In an epiphanic conclusion at an exhibition in Lahore, Plato's paintings present a cavalcade of historical events, right up to the Obama regime. Through Dara, Plato and Zaynab, Ali examines home, absence, and how, at times, exile and expatriation become interchangeable. Zaynab will return to taste freedom in Paris and London, but she'll always be drawn back to the Fatherland. And so, it seems, will our restless narrator.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in