The final part of Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet is a reflection of the descent of Pakistan (or “Fatherland”, as it is called throughout the novel) into its own special kind of hell.
The story is told through the voice of a 60-something narrator, required to redeem a very old debt of honour to a dying radical artist, a friend of his youth in Lahore. The task is to write the painter’s biography and to do this the narrator has to excavate the story of his network of friends and acquaintances from the radical intellectual milieu of the Punjabi bourgeoisie.
Like most of them, the narrator leaves Fatherland for study and employment in the West. The painter returns, unable to live away from Fatherland, although he has to survive by paying Karachi gangsters for protection from the mullahs. In one sense this is the biography of a narrow social layer, but Ali clearly locates it in social and political time and space.
Far from the nurturing role implicit in the word, “Fatherland” is a place of danger. This comes from the army (one general is bumped off by the others for giving too much information to the US government) and from the backward landlord class (the “primitives”) who control and ravish the countryside and rip off the state.
One theme revolves around the daughter of a landlord dynasty who is “married to the Koran”, in order to prevent her share of the inheritance from leaving the family. She is saved by an ironic feature of Fatherlandi life – the high rate of premature death among the ruling class. Her two appalling eldest brothers are killed when their helicopter crashes, leaving her free to live her own life.
In the background lurks the latest ally of Fatherland, the out of control US government. Tolerated but not trusted by the Fatherlandi rulers, their influence seeps throughout the country. So the mistress of the bumped-off general is whisked off to Paris by the French secret service and then given a makeover by “mediacrats” to fit their narrative of female oppression in the Muslim world. This episode is initially brutal, then hilarious and finally tragic, and provides a fitting commentary to the antics of Ayan Hirsi Ali.
It’s difficult to do justice to such a subtle and wide-ranging book. Underlying the entire narrative there is a sadness at the loss of the pre-Partition cosmopolitan culture of Lahore, destroyed first by the generals and then by their protégés the Islamists.
Yet what Ali shows is that these appalling shits, which so obsess Western media and “academic” commentators, are nothing but parasites on the body of the rest of the population. Despite everything, humanity survives the powerful.
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