If Pakistan is a land of untold stories, whispered conspiracy theories and closed-door mutinies, then thank heavens for Tariq Ali, whose access to its innermost secret chambers has made him the country's finest historian and critic.
Night of the Golden Butterfly is the fifth and final volume of Ali's Islam quintet. His intricate historical novels have spanned the Moors in Spain, the Ottoman empire, medieval car-tographers in Palermo and the battle for Jerusalem, before finally bringing us to modern-day Lahore, the cultural heart of the "Fatherland" (the name Pakistan is never mentioned), where four college students begin a friendship based on shared Marxist fantasies, a love of Punjabi poetry, irreverence and the hormonal palpitations of young love.
The narrator, the writer Dara - named, one assumes, after Dara Shikoh, the imprisoned Mughal poet and prince - brings the four friends back together decades later, drawing them from London, Paris, Lahore and Beijing. In order to weave their tales together, Ali uses the mystery of Mohammed Aflatun, known as Plato, one of the Fatherland's most renowned and reclusive painters, who calls in a favour in the form of a
biography, to be written by his old chum Dara.
The quest for Plato's story brings to light the "four cancers of the Fatherland": America, the military, mullahs and the corruption of politicians. Politics saturates every page, whether Ali is writing about the Muslim rebellion in Yunnan or the current war in Swat, the parties to which he compares to a "hydra-headed beast". There is the violence of the Fatherland's rich and powerful - from the Sindhi feudal lords who marry the beautiful and brave Zaynab to the Quran and the authorities' inept reliance on "Detectives Without Borders" to solve its most notorious murders, through the trigger-happy politicos who knock off a general who has got in their way, to the revenge visited on women who collaborate with foreign enemies.
Ali's polemics are leavened with subversive wit and mimicry of ludicrous public figures. Look out in particular for a hilarious caricature of Bernard-Henri Lévy and a surreptitious mention of the world's best-known Muslim apostate, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
It is this transgressive ability that makes Ali's treatment of sundry media simplifications digestible. "Don't you find wearing the hijab crushes your thoughts?" asks an earnest Naughty Lateef, Muslim Barbie du jour and darling of Europe's closeted Islamobigots (arguably one of the book's best characters). "No," comes the reply from a veiled Frenchwoman. "I wear it as a sign of my resistance, as a gesture of defiance."
As Night of the Golden Butterfly develops, it becomes sharper. The irascible Plato's doomed love affairs, first with Alice Stepford, a London art critic and lady about town, and then with Zaynab ("Mrs Koran") Shah, take a tragic turn. And then there's the changing face of Lahore - no longer a city of lovers, fresh fruit juice stalls and midnight meanderings, but a megalopolis of bearded weirdos and their hangers-on. In an especially bravura episode, Zahid, one of the central characters, and a former Fatherlandi idealist, becomes a card-carrying Republican doctor in Washington, DS ("District of Satan"). Heaven help the Americans and French in Ali's hands - though, God knows, they deserve a good lashing.
The novel is rich with the personal stories of an array of vividly drawn characters - not least Jindie, the Punjabi-Chinese butterfly of the title. Writing a tale of the Pakistani "Fatherland" in English can be accomplished gracefully only if the author's linguistic abilities are up to the task. Give or take the occasional scatological reference, Ali's are, and he is able to extricate Punjabi poetry and history from a narrowly provincial frame.
It is odd to hear of Ali described, as he sometimes is, as one of Britain's national treasures. For we in Pakistan wish to claim him unequivocally as ours. Without Ali, Pakistani literature is written and published in fragments, scattered over time and space, and often told only through the ubiquitous storyline of a Pakistani immigrant struggling with national identity. One hopes that, although this is the last book in a series, Ali won't stop writing his unusually lyrical historical fiction.
Night of the Golden Butterfly
Verso, 240pp, £14.99
Fatima Bhutto is the author of "Songs of Blood and Sword: a Daughter's Memoir" (Jonathan Cape, £20)