Ali is provocative, polemical and often very funny writes MARC LAMBERT for Scotland on Sunday, 9 August
The work of literature, Stendhal once wrote, “is like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar, and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention”. This piece of wit introduces Ali’s entertaining and informative selection of occasional pieces, documenting his literary, political and cultural interests over the last three decades.
Each essay is a shot in the air, even if most have been aired before. There is some repetition, and some duds, such as the essay which gives the book its title, a spoof on Proust, Zionism and homosexuality that doesn’t quite work. But for the most part Ali is provocative, polemical and often very funny.
Take his view of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Isn’t it rather like Gone with the Wind, he asks, except that the latter is better? And isn’t Natasha silly? So silly in fact, that she’s the Princess Di of Russian culture? Part of the joy of reading Ali is to come across such heresies. We know it’s a highly partial, deliberately controversial stance. But he’s inviting us to have some fun, because we may learn something by looking sideways.
Ali’s roving ecumenical mind provides the other chief pleasure of these pieces. Discussing subjects as diverse as cricket, Anthony Powell, the Situationists, Pakistani politics, or the Arab novelist AbdelrahmanMunif, he brings us news which shatters the conformity of our monoglot culture. Ali insists throughout on the centrality of politics and history to art and life. He laments Salman Rushdie’s decline from politically committed novelist to celebrity. But in relation to the infamous fatwa he quotes the medieval Muslim poet al-Ma’arri, “The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts Those with brains but no religion/And those with religion but no brains.”
Towards the end there’s an obituary for the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. It concludes with Toer’s words: “People who consider themselves to be non-political… have already been assimilated by the dominant political culture – they just don’t notice it any more.” You couldn’t say that of Ali.
Tariq Ali is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 16 August, 3pm