A bitter pill, magnificently sugared
FICTION:Pure By Timothy Mo Turnaround Books, 388pp. £16.99
TIMOTHY MO was born in Hong Kong in 1950. His father was a Cantonese solicitor, his mother an Englishwoman. The couple divorced, and in 1960 Mo’s mother brought him to England. He went to Oxford to study history and then to the University of East Anglia, where he did the MA in creative writing.
He began his working life as a journalist writing for the New Statesman and Boxing News. (Mo was a bantamweight.) A run of novels followed: The Monkey King (1978), Sweet Sour (1982), An Insular Possession (1986) and The Redundancy of Courage (1991). These were loved by readers and critics alike for their exotic settings, brilliant historical exposition and exuberant, playful technique.
Then, controversially, in 1995, Mo derogated from the world of established publishers and substantial advances and self-published his fifth novel, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, with his own label, Paddleless Press.
Brownout was truculently received, but despite this Mo persevered with self-publishing: he also issued his sixth novel, Renegade or Halo2 (2000), with Paddleless Press. And now, after 12 years of silence, he has a new novel, Pure, though this time he’s opted to publish with Turnaround Books, a small commercial press.
Most of Pure is set in southern Thailand, site for many years of an Islamist uprising against the Thai state, with most of the story narrated by a pre-op transvestite, real name Ahmed, street name Snooky.
Snooky begins the novel as a promiscuous Bangkok-based film critic who hangs with ladyboys and takes drugs in industrial quantities. Because of both his lifestyle and his Muslim background, Snooky is targeted by the Thai secret service, which wants to insert him into a pondok (or madrasa) in southern Thailand to spy on the school’s principal, Shaykh, a professional jihadist of Pakistani provenance bent on establishing a caliphate encompassing Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Though it seems preposterous initially, one soon realises that the choice of Snooky is brilliant. He’s a habitual drug user, so the Thai agent who coerces him is able to offer him the choice of serving a long stretch in the notorious prison known as the Bangkok Hilton or becoming a spy (an offer Snooky naturally accepts).
Moreover, as one knows from every book ever written about security services anywhere in the world, they always target vulnerable, marginal figures such as Snooky, as opposed to suave sadists such as James Bond. It also makes sense to choose Snooky because it seems safe to assume that, as a transvestite, he’s going to be antagonistic to the homophobic, militant, jihadist world to which he’s being sent, and unswervingly loyal to his masters who want to destroy that world.
Things don’t work out as the spymasters plan, however, and Snooky ends up participating in several horrible jihadist actions. So how is it that Snooky, who at the novel’s start has entirely internalised gay culture, is by the end a militant jihadist? The answer, Mo posits, is Islam and the promise of purity it offers.
In our incoherent, muddy, immoral, unequal, postmodern world, Mo proposes, cast-iron Islamic pieties are a liberation, which is why even a character as unlikely as Snooky is moved (eventually and after a lot of plot) to embrace the values of jihad. They make him safe; they make him whole.
I don’t know if Mo’s thesis obtains in the real world. Are young men and women flocking to Jemaah Islamiyah, for example, because it offers Islamic certainty? I’ve no idea. Novels aren’t journalistic tracts, however; they’re stories about people, and all a reader demands is that a character’s actions be credible within the terms of the book. In this case, Snooky’s melancholy trajectory feels completely plausible.
His story is bleak and depressing, but behind that story – darker, bleaker and even more depressing – is Mo’s overarching thesis that there is no possibility of reconciliation between militant Islam and its enemies (who include most Muslims as well as the rest of the world), because when you have order (albeit Islamic order) on the one hand and chaos on the other, there never can be dialogue. The only kind of relationship between jihadists and the rest is one of violence.
From this premise, only one future can be foreseen for mankind: the jihadists, including Snooky, will be in one corner and everyone else will be in the other, and the bout that shall follow will be one of epic Hobbesian misery, with all human beings, both believers and infidels, enduring lives that are nasty, brutish and short.
I can think of few contemporary novels this dystopian, but I would be doing this excellent and provocative book an injustice if I did not also acknowledge that it is characterised by the same literary virtues as Mo’s earlier novels: it is full of incident and colour, not to mention a considerable amount of fascinating information about Asian history; it teems with a variety of well-realised voices; and, perhaps most importantly, it has some wonderful jokes. Yes, it is a nasty pill Mo asks us to swallow, but he sugars it magnificently.
Timothy Mo is an important writer who explores characters and places that are unusual and rarely investigated by other authors. He has been silent for a while, so it is good news that he is back and even better news that Pure is good – actually, very good indeed.
Carlo Géblers novel The Dead Eight is shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. He will be running an advanced writing workshop at Listowel Writers’ Week this month