Tariq Ali, Verso; £12.99
Tariq Ali is known to readers of this magazine as one of the most trenchant and articulate critics of imperialism. This collection of his articles, diary entries, reviews and interviews, published over many years, takes us in a different direction and reveals Ali's passion for literature.
When his writing is at its strongest it can make you want to read books that you long ago decided were not for you - in my case, Don Quixote, passages of which are revealed as a fascinating commentary on both the Cold War and today's so-called clash of civilisations.
The articles on and interviews with Salman Rushdie, centring on his novel Midnight's Children, are a treat. They place the award-winning work in the context of earlier British writing on India, particularly Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet, which Ali insists "portrays the marriage between the colonial administration and the indigenous landed gentry with a rare subtlety and sensitivity".
Ali's enthusiasm alone could make you want to go back and read Midnight's Children again, but this is no mere hero worship - there are serious political points to be addressed. For example, does the book contain an inherent pessimism about the possibility of change in Asia? A charge laid by a number of influential Indian leftists but one that Ali thoroughly refutes.
But even when discussing the work of those he clearly admires, Ali is not afraid to take issue with, and even break from, them. In a piece written this year he slates Rushdie for his capitulation to imperialism and the collapse of his writing, saying, "The last two novels were effusively praised by his friends, but they read more like a sad attempt to mimic his earlier successes. This was difficult to achieve, since he was no longer the same person."
The second section of the book is a selection of diary pieces, a series of snapshots from around the world. Some of the entries, like The Pin-Up in Lahore, work brilliantly and offer genuine insights. Ali describes the opening of Pace, a new shopping mall in the city, in a way that exposes the incredible contradictions that make up Pakistan:
"The entrance to Pace attracted more visitors than the goods on display. Peasants with their marvellous moustaches, anointed with mustard-seed oil, came from nearby villages... Rather than Lahore in the era of globalisation, it could have been a scene from turn of the century Paris, were it not for the noise of the loudspeakers in competing mosques compelling one to cease work or conversation and plug one's ears."
Unfortunately, not all the entries are as satisfying. The piece on the media in Venezuela is particularly lightweight when compared to the best of the writing here.
The last section, entitled Farewells, is a series of obituaries. I found the two dedicated to the work of the US-Palestinian academic and freedom fighter Edward Said particularly moving.
With great tenderness Ali describes how, under the impact of the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, Said moved from his Ivy League university in the US to playing a crucial role in the Palestinian National Council.
Discussing the war, Said told Ali, "The world as I had understood it ended at that moment. I had been in the States for years but it was only now that I began to be in touch with other Arabs. By 1970 I was immersed in politics and the Palestinian resistance movement."
At its best, this collection from an incisive veteran of the movement informs and educates with a lucidity and style that is difficult to emulate. Nevertheless, readers may wish to draw from it selectively.