Review by Robert Goodman
Timothy Mo had a brilliant early career: three books in a row shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982, 1986 and 1991 showed a prodigious range. Sour Sweet chronicled the struggles of a Chinese migrant family setting up a restaurant in London in the 1960s, An Insular Possession explored the opium wars in mid-19thC Hong Kong, and A Redundancy of Courage shone a light on the Indonesian occupation of East Timor in 1975 and the Timorese resistance.
And then Mo disappeared. After falling out with his publishers, Mo left the UK and self-published a couple of books in the mid- to late-nineties (Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard from 1995 and Renegade or Halo2 from 2000). After more than a decade, Mo returns with Pure, a novel which explores a number of his previous themes.
Pure is predominantly the story of Snooky, a Thai ladyboy (or katoey) who lives the Bangkok highlife of drugs and parties with a group of fellow transgenders, and writes movie reviews for local newspapers. Snooky is blackmailed by the Thai police into joining a Muslim fundamentalist cell that has been established in a school near his old hometown in Southern Thailand (or Siam as Snooky insists on calling it). The story then follows Snooky’s (now Ahmed’s) interaction with the cause and a growing fundamentalist awakening.
Mo frames Snooky’s gen-Y, streetwise narration with short interludes narrated by the three members of the older generation – Victor, an ageing Oxford don and recruiter for MI6, the Shaykh, charismatic leader of the cell that Snooky has been sent to infiltrate, and Imam Umar, its spiritual leader. In doing this, Mo is able to import all of the baggage of history, from the partition of India and the creation of modern Thailand, through to recent events such as 9/11 and the Bali bombings. These perspectives also allow the reader to reflect on how much the experiences and ideologies of these ageing warriors is driving the current conflict. Through an exploration of their characters and methods, however brief, the novel is also able to explore how, through pressures brought to bear by the conflict between these men, even a character like Snooky could be radicalised
There are moments of quite graphic and confronting violence, but Mo uses his various narrative styles to lighten the story. He effortlessly shifts gears between the various characters and manages to layer what is often an unreliable first-person narrative. Snooky’s narration is littered with diverse pop-culture references, which range from Casablanca to Star Trek and beyond, while the Shaykh’s narratives infused by grandiose plans, malapropisms and misunderstandings of the West.
The plot itself is embedded with sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle satire. One of the more laugh-out-loud sections has reality TV butting up against Jihadism. Snooky promotes the idea to the Shaykh of using reality TV formats to assist in training at the multinational fundamentalist camp they have retreated to in the Philippines. Arguing on the basis that ‘the format is neutral’, Snooky comes up with such classics as ‘Big Brotherhood House’, ‘Mad versus Mild’ and the ultimate ‘Maguindanao’s Next Top Mujahid’. The balance between satire and horror is often a precarious one – Snooky’s attempt to outdo Bergman and film the historical re-enactment of the massacre of a village of Muslims by US troops starts as broad farce but when the production ends up using real, emaciated Western captives to play the Americans, ends violently.
While interesting as purely a character study, Pure has larger concerns. Mo seeks to understand how ordinary, and not so ordinary, non-practicing Muslims can get caught up in the fundamentalist machine. How the efforts of the West to infiltrate or control fundamentalist groups often serves to further radicalise them. And how outdated thinking and historical forces are driving the current day campaigns of both the fundamentalists and their adversaries.
Pure is in turns sassy, camp, confrontingly violent, erudite and satirical. Its range of styles can be jarring at times and the plot meanders, particularly in the Philippines section. But it is a brave, insightful and often disturbing novel that signposts a welcome return for Timothy Mo.
Turnaround Press, 2012
Review by Robert Goodman