Writings – Essays – The rise and fall, and rise again, of the mysterious Timothy Mo


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This essay was published in
The Globe and Mail, June 22, 2012
The rise and fall, and rise again, of the mysterious Timothy Mo

Who is Timothy Mo? Two decades ago, the answer to that question was easy for admirers of the brash novelists who had emerged from the post-Empire. Today, it requires unfurling a tale of a singular man and his singular career.

Having any reason to talk about Timothy Mo again is exciting. After 13 years of silence, the Anglo-Chinese writer has just published his seventh work of fiction, Pure, an outlandish story of a Thai transvestite who is coerced into making jihad.

If early reviews from England are any indication, Pure could land Mo on a Man-Booker Prize long list later this summer. That attention is something the 61-year-old may or may not desire, despite – or maybe because of – his three previous encounters with Booker-sized recognition, back in that earlier literary era. All this, plus the oddity that Pure isn’t currently available in North America, most likely at its author’s request.

To understand why such an extraordinary writer would behave in such ways, it is necessary to revisit Mo’s legendary professional self-immolation, and the circumstances that gave rise to a voice, and a vision, whose time may only now be coming.

Born in Hong Kong in 1950 to an English mother and a Chinese father, Timothy Mo moved to Britain with his family at the age of 10. Rebellious and gifted, he had already read Dickens and Cervantes before leaving China, and made a project of forgetting how to speak Cantonese during the three-week ship journey from East to West.

By 12, he wanted to be a novelist. Having survived English prep school, Mo went on to St. John’s College, Oxford, where he studied literature, and boxed. People who know him believe his early ardour for the sweet science of bruising is telling.

The Monkey King, published in 1978, announced a rare talent. Set in Hong Kong and Macau, the novel displayed a pitiless eye and a darkly comedic sensibility. It won its young author a prize, the first of many. In fact, Mo’s next three novels, Sour Sweet, An Insular Possession and 1991’s The Redundancy of Courage, were all Booker nominees.

Though none of the books triumphed, Mo was a star member of “the Empire Strikes Back” coterie of novelists then probing Britain’s colonial legacy from the perspectives of their own identities as the mongrel offspring. What they observed about their own societies, and about faded England, was sensational literary news.

Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanif Kureishi and Canada’s Michael Ondaatje also pushed and prodded the contemporary English novel into far livelier shapes than the form that Martin Amis, a native fellow traveller, once described as being too often little more than “250 pages of middle-class ups and downs.”

Among the Empire Strikes Back club, none was as restless or intrepid as Timothy Mo. Starting in the mid-1980s, he began showing signs of wishing to return to the evolving East he had left behind as a child. The Redundancy of Courage, in particular, an incendiary novel about the insurgency in East Timor, read with the urgency of a series of dispatches by a journalist embedded with the rebels.

Sure enough, Mo’s status as a London literati was about to be imploded, by his own hand. Mistrustful of the publishing industry, and increasingly outspoken, he rejected a sizeable, and well-publicized, advance for a new novel in 1994, opting instead to self-publish.

The result was a disaster. The uneven and perhaps unedited Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard won neither the usual critical praise nor the support of his fellow writers, many of whom thought he had gone fatally rogue.

Too few shops were willing to stock the book and too few readers found their way to it, especially once its deliberately offensive prologue, involving a grotesque sexual encounter between an elderly German professor and a Filipino prostitute, came to dominate media coverage.

Unrepentant, Mo followed with another self-published effort, Renegade or Halo2, set in the Philippines and Hong Kong. A 1999 jury awarded it the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and critics once more swooned over his high-octane prose and bravura storytelling.

Observable in this novel, as well as its troubled predecessor, was Mo’s deepening ambition to explore Asian societies in fragile and violent post-colonial unravelling, their identities fractured. Here was a matured vision, and it was blistering and assaultive, intending to bite back at the West, deny it absolution for any sins, historic or ongoing.

But without the support of the publishing industry, Renegade or Halo2 went similarly undistributed and unread. The novel had still another deficit: Its author had now gone missing, rumoured to be living in Hong Kong or the Philippines. The century ended on that note, with Timothy Mo a career car crash, a cautionary tale. The rest, even his fans might have thought, could be silence.

Pure is, by default, a 9/11 novel. Mo’s hero, a bawdy Bangkok ladyboy called Snooky, can’t escape his origins as an Islamic kid from southern Thailand. Though disaffection among the Islamic population in the border region with Malaysia predated the Twin Towers, it exploded into an insurgency in 2004, part of the current global jihad.

The garrulous Snooky may scorn the local version as “boutique jihad,” but he is soon engulfed. Authorities blackmail him into returning to the region and infiltrating the local chapter. Once more called Ahmed, he runs awkwardly with the jihadis, some friends from childhood, simultaneously betraying them and professing commitment to the future caliphate.

This “pure” ambition eventually finds weird purchase in Snooky/Ahmed’s mind. He longs in the end for a moment “of fulfilment, chaste and decent,” one achievable only by the kind of violence he instinctively abhors. One of his minders, a Western liberal named Victor Veridian, intersects with his mark at the precise wrong moment.

Mo tells the story largely through Snooky, with Victor allotted a few rambling chapters that are a mischievous mash-up of the grizzled Western gaze on the East of a Graham Greene or John le Carré. Pure dazzles with its voices and exuberance, but finally persuades with its forays into previously unexplored hearts and minds and its bracing moral seriousness.

For his first book of the new century, Timothy Mo has opted to use a London distribution company, Turnaround Books, as publisher. Pure, a major achievement that could still benefit from some edits, can only be obtained in Canada by ordering from a British website.

If that situation seems strange as well – it is hard to imagine some Canadian and American publisher not wanting to publish Timothy Mo again – chalk it up to the behaviour of a writer who will not be compromised, nor mediated, either on the page or, it would seem, in his life. Not a few great artists are composed of such stubborn, frustrating stuff.

And a more probing question to ask isn’t “who” but “where” is Timothy Mo? He isn’t at any cocktail parties or making the rounds of festivals. Instead, he is out the dangerous wide world, bringing back never-before-told stories of social meltdown and violently divided selves that speak to how the jangly 21st century is looking – and has looked to him since long before it was formally upturned on Sept. 11, 2001.

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