“It was something we just started by accident” – “we” being Verso, the independent radical publishing house of which Ali is editorial director, which has kept all five novels in print. “I wrote Pomegranate Tree and it went down quite well, and then Edward Said said to me: ‘You’ve got to tell the whole bloody story now. You can’t just stop midway.'”
The novels of the quintet do not proceed sequentially, or even chronologically. Volume two, The Book of Saladin, steps back three centuries and into the Middle East. Volume three, The Stone Woman, visits 19th-century Istanbul. With the fourth, A Sultan in Palermo, we are in 12th-century Sicily. There are no long-string relationships threaded through the ages, or historical bloodlines. The common dynamic is the repeated collision of east and west, and its fearsome aftershocks. Night of the Golden Butterfly, is set in the present day, with characters flitting from London to Paris, from Germany to China. At the centre of the story is a Pakistani painter, Plato (by naming his hero after a founder of western thought, Ali asserts his belief that the twain shall meet). At the end of the book, the characters congregate in Lahore for a viewing of Plato’s last great painting. It is a triptych, at centre of which is Barack Obama, “the first dark-skinned leader of the Great Society”, with the stars and stripes “in a state of cancerous decay” tattooed on his back. “The newest imperial chieftain was wearing a button: ‘Yes we can . . . still destroy countries’.” Elsewhere in Plato’s painting, tumours sprout and bearded jihadis are shown “developing a life of their own”.
- Talk and reading on Monday 10th May, 6.45-8pm at the British Library
- Public lecture on Tuesday 11th May, 6.30pm at the LSE
For more details and to book/020 7955 6043.