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Timothy Mo Biography

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Nationality: British. Born: Hong Kong in 1950; brought to London in 1960. Education: Mill Hill School, London; St. John's College, Oxford. Career: Journalist, Times Educational Supplement, New Statesman, and Boxing News, all London. Awards: Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize, 1978; Hawthornden prize, 1982; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1999.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Monkey King. London, Deutsch, 1980; New York, Doubleday, 1980.

Sour Sweet. London, Deutsch, 1982; New York, Vintage, 1985.

An Insular Possession. New York, Chatto and Windus, 1986; NewYork, Random House, 1987.

The Redundancy of Courage. London, Chatto and Windus, 1991.

Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard. London, Paddleless, 1995.

Renegade or Halo2. London, Paddleless, 1999.

* * *

Hong Kong-born Timothy Mo, the son of a Cantonese father and an English mother who moved to England in the early 1960s (when Mo was ten years old), is one of the head figures in British immigrant writing of the last two decades. Often compared to Salman Rushdie or Kazuo Ishiguro because of his double cultural background, Mo's naturalist eye for human weakness and his sardonic amusement with the desperate state of the modern world nonetheless guarantee him recognition as a very individual writer. His novels have won different awards like the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize or the Hawthornden Prize, and with Sour Sweet, An Insular Possession, and The Redundancy of Courage, Mo was a Booker contender three times within ten years, a record not easily matched by any other contemporary writer.

Already with his first novel, The Monkey King, published when Mo was still in his twenties, the note was struck that determines his work to the present day: the exploration of cultural outsiders and their development in the worlds they enter. Wallace Nolesco, the half-Portuguese protagonist of The Monkey King, marries into the Chinese Poon family where he step by step assumes his father-in-law's—the King Monkey's—position as head of family. Moving between 1950s' Hong Kong and the New Territories, the plot shows the in-betweener Wallace maturing into a wiser individual, surviving in the midst of various cultures' incomprehension for each other: the Hong Kong finance business world and the traditional Chinese hinterland society, the Portuguese and the English. On the other hand, the parallels between these different cultures are also foregrounded at times, for example when Mr. Nolasco, Wallace's father, advises his son: "Understand the English, and you will understand the Chinese, too." The Monkey King is a funny but cruel novel, already showing Mo on his way to become the detached satirist and meticulous observer he is now.

If The Monkey King gave evidence of the young writer's great ingenuity and ambition, his second novel Sour Sweet is widely reputed to be Mo's masterpiece. Published in 1982, right after Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children had flung the doors wide open for a new reading interest in literatures from a culturally different background, the novel immediately caught a large audience's attention and received much critical acclaim. Sour Sweet is Mo's only novel to deal with the immigrant situation in Britain. The Chen family, described as a jelly-like amoeba adapting to the new environment, opens a take-away restaurant in suburban London. The novel's title, referring to the kind of exotic dishes created for Western tastes served at such places ("rubbish, total lupsup, fit only for foreign devils"), on the other hand emphasizes the cunning character of such an assimilative process. Despite Chen's murder through the Triad society, a Chinese Mafia organization exploiting immigrant Chinese in its drug smuggling operations, and the extreme violence of the rivaling Mafia gang-fights (that give evidence that Mo was once working as a part-time reporter for the Boxing News), Sour Sweet is an immensely comic novel. Mo manages to create a universe so exclusively Chinese that the reader may forget that the novel is actually set in London. Characters like Lily, Chen's headstrong wife with expert training in traditional temple boxing, or her sister Mui who builds up her knowledge about the British by watching soap operas, are memorable, wonderfully vivid characters. Sour Sweet, already successful as a novel, was also made into a film whose screenplay was written by Ian McEwan.

With the success of Sour Sweet, Mo's reputation as a novelist of excellence was established. An Insular Possession, published four years later and another Booker finalist, was accordingly blurbed in the North American editions as "perhaps the most highly praised work of fiction published in England in 1986." An Insular Possession, however, differs in both complexity and ambition from Mo's first two books. Mo studied history at St John's College, Oxford, and his meticulous historical interest is evident in his vast narrative. The historical novel, set in Canton and Macao in the mid-nineteenth century (the time of the first Opium War and the founding of British Hong Kong), is also the closest Mo gets to postmodernism, showing history and fiction to be inseparably intertwined. An Insular Possession is an experimental narrative of multiplicities. Not enough that the quest for truth and the representation of reality are skeptically explored, also the novel's form as a mosaic of all kinds of "historical" documents—newspapers, diaries, letters, etc.—is held together by a scholarly Victorian-style omniscient narrator. In a famous passage by one of the two young American protagonists, Gideon Chase, the Western and the Eastern novel are contrasted as "linear" account of an individual (Western) and "circular" account of the life of a group (Eastern). Needless to say, An Insular Possession is both, and as such an intellectually demanding but very rewarding tour de force.

The Redundancy of Courage, both documentary fiction and a political thriller, stakes out new territory again. Set in a different part of Southeast Asia, on the island Danu (read East Timor) in the troublesome 1970s, Mo's forth novel is the first to forsake an omniscient narrator for a first-person account. Adolph Ng, of Chinese descent and as a homosexual graduate from the University of Toronto clearly marked as another of Mo's outsiders, describes the guerilla warfare after the brutal Malais (read Indonesian) invasion. Ng's conviction that "there is no such thing as a hero" is reflected in his own chameleon-like life in the jungle, but Ng is difficult to catch for the reader, too, through his sometimes nauseated, sometimes amused, sometimes wry comments on the incredible hardships of war. With this novel, Mo introduces to his work a very cynical point of view with regard to the West's perception and exploitation of the Third World, a point of view that prevails also in his two other 1990s novels. In The Redundancy of Courage, it is the enormous reality-shaping power of the mass media (already important in An Insular Possession) that Mo uncompromisingly explores. As Ng at one point bitterly observes, "if it doesn't get on to the TV in the West, it hasn't happened," a statement given in the midst of a breathtaking account on the soldiers' desperation and agony. Even if the novel ends on a conciliatory note, The Redundancy of Courage is a less funny book than its predecessors, and replaces the trickster's cunning growth with a new word in Mo's vocabulary: resistance.

The trajectory of his 1995 novel Brownout at Breadfruit Boulevard is similar, although Mo, apparently annoyed with his literary agents and publishers, had left Vintage and founded his own imprint, Paddleless Press. The critical response treated Brownout at Bread-fruit Boulevard more reservedly than his other novels, blaming the narrative's multiple focus (the point of view is shared by various characters) and loose structure on the lack of good editorial advise. This criticism may be overstated, but it is true that the (whether deliberately or not) clichéd characters are sacrificed to the novel's crass vulgarity. Mo himself has cheerfully described the first chapter as "the filthiest of any book ever written," but also the rest of the book is entirely preoccupied with the excremental. The "shower of shit" with which the novel starts, is used as the dominant metaphor to describe the Philippines as torn between arcane business and violence, power games and selfishness, incomprehension between the cultures and-again—the press trying to control reality. The title of the conference around which the narrative revolves may be applied to the book itself: "Cultural Plurality in a World of Ecological Limits." Brownout at Breadfruit Boulevard, though at times intensely funny and very self-conscious—for example, some of the Mafiosi from Sour Sweet appear again—is probably Mo's most uncompromising novel.

Renegade or Halo2, his latest novel to date, shows Mo back dealing with another of his typical miscreant protagonists, Sugar Rey Castro, educated by Jesuit brothers and embarking on a picaresque journey from Manila via Hong Kong and Bombay to Miami. The protagonist-narrator, an ethnic mixture of African-American and Malay Chinese roots, is also called 'Halo-Halo' (the reduplicated form indicates the plural in Indonesian languages) which refers to "the many-hued and multi-textured confection of ice-cream, cereals, neon syrups, crystallised fruits, frosty shavings, leguminous preserves and bloated pulses that you find under different names all over South East Asia." Castro, the true-born multicultural boy, is not only notable for his intelligence but also for the "elephant gun" in his trousers, which gets him again and again into trouble. While the character formation through a series of extremely brutal events and the omnipresent wry humor connect Renegade or Halo2 with Mo's earlier novels, the at times insistent display of the author's polyglottery and the somewhat bloated use of intertextual references (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Midnight's Children are just the most obvious) arguably make the book an over-rich Halo2 pudding itself. Still, Renegade or Halo2 proves once more Mo's status as a prolific and important literary voice of British fiction—even if the Anglo-Cantonese writer has recently moved back to Hong Kong after twenty years in London.

Tobias Wachinger

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