Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Review: The Duel, Tariq Ali (2008)

A provocative cover. A subtitle saturated with pathos. A gripping read. But a failure. This is a strange package and one that is motivated by excellent feelings but Ali's book does not convince me of its main premise: that US foreign policy has systematically warped Pakistani politics for over 60 years.

We know this is his goal because he tells us again and again that it is. But what emerges most strongly from the book is that Pakistan's political system is not robust enough to improve the lives of its citizens.

In the West we often say "You get the government you deserve". Here, Ali goes the other way, blaming venal and corrupt politicians for the ills suffered by the millions of ordinary - mostly poor - Pakistanis who emerge to vote (when they're given that option) and who invariably vote in a set of leaders who resemble the last lot in all but name.

If corruption is rife at the top, doesn't that mean it's also present at other levels of the social matrix? Ali says "No". I wonder.

As a piece of literature, the book is impressive. It's a tight, challenging read that demands total concentration, especially for those, like me, who are mainly unfamiliar with the principal cognates of Pakistani politics. You have to keep your head if you want to get through this and also glean whatever is good and durable in the narrative. Don't start thinking about what someone said to you an hour earlier: just keep your head down and read.

This is not a failing. But it's a structural element that betrays Ali's main problem in designing the book. There are two potential readerships, and he has to cater for both. On the one hand there's an educated Westerner with an interest in South Asian society. On the other hand there's the educated Pakistani who understands the ins and outs of his country's political history.

To write for both audiences in the one book means that he has to go fast enough to allow the second class of reader to stay interested. But he has to explain things well enough so that the first class of reader can keep up with him. The result is sometimes extremely dense grammar and syntax that requires your full attention.

No doubt there are hidden bombs here that I just passed over glibly on my way to the end of a chapter. I'll never know. There's just so much good writing available nowadays that it's unlikely I'll buy another book on Pakistani politics for a while. At least I can recognise some of its main events now. That's a good result for a strong, principled author who has been writing about his country for a long time and continues to entertain his readers.

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