Round up of ‘ Search for Timothy Mo’ : Come back into the fold. The third article by Anne Teoh for Beyond Thirty-Nine
The shouts of several reviewers that “ Timothy Mo is Missing,” led to the research for these three articles. Setting out, it felt like a psych out for the enigmatic writer, with echoes from the parallel worlds of the cloak and dagger atmosphere in his main works. It prompted John Mortimer to respond quickly, either to Mo’s writing or the search article, with an allusion to a ‘literary thriller.’ As it happens, that turns out to be really, about the Moesque genre of writing.
Since then, a timeline emerged when glimpses of the elusive Mo were spotted –
- Publication of Pure in 2012 by Turnaround Books
- Messages from four women who saw him last in July 2010 -12
- His article on, “ Korea is the Focus but this is China Versus Japan,” in The Guardian on 10 April 2013
- His article in, “ Timothy Mo: On Hope in the Troubled Nation” in The Independent on 17 July 2014
- Contact from one vetted reliable source in July 2015
- A Google connect to BBC4 Radio 4 Mariella Fostrups’ Open Book interview on 22 April 2012
The year 2012 was the cut off point for confirmation of Mo’s presence when reviews of Pure splashed across all mainstream British newspapers. That’s how much the readers love him in the UK, contrary to his perceived notion that British readers do not warm up to him. The articles he sent out in 2013 and 2014 gave us grateful sighs of relief – that Mo popped into orbit at roughly annual intervals to transmit his indiscriminate views over some troubled waters of the world.
In July 2015, I received a vetted message that Mo is unscathed and living in SE Asia. I was about to wrap up what had turned into a period of riveting reading and discourse on the absent author’s writing, when an interview with Mariella Forstrup on BBC Radio 4 caught my attention. It holds many clues for Mo’s dramatic departure, and, fingers crossed, perhaps for his return.
The interview, held on Sunday 22 April 2012, was probably to commemorate the publication of Pure. Thanks to BBC Radio 4, we get the bigger picture and some of the reasons for Timothy Mo’s ‘disappearance.’ Was there a reason why Daniel Ben Horin and Charles Foran spooked about Mo being “missing”? One can totally understand their consternation, much as we should now be concerned about Mo’s need for our understanding and appreciation. That brief interview was a valediction and an adieu for Mo’s exit from London. Here’s the link- Forstrup: Open Book: Timothy Mo in his much anticipated, Pure: Radio 4
Several stinging issues were raised. In brief, they cover –
- Some perturbing personal information
- the main features of the controversial Pure.
- Which genre does Pure fit into?
What Timothy Mo said, about himself and throughout the rambling interview, accentuates these salient points –
- He could not live in the UK on his writing alone. He confessed, “I’m completely broke.” The net payment he received for his advances amounted to about £60,000. Taken that he writes a book every 2-10 years, he earns less than £10,000 per annum on average, an impossible sum to live on in the UK, and in most places, these days.
- He could live like a king with the same amount (£10,000) in South-East Asia. (but we know there’s high inflation everywhere today).
- He was appalled with the way young emerging writers in general are treated in dehumanizing and humiliating ways. (We get a taste of how this impinged on Mo himself).
- With reference to his choice for marginalized characters, he admitted he had had experience of alienation as an Anglo-Chinese race. This must have happened in his boarding school period from the 60s and perhaps right up to university days when he had “long hair and was dressed in black velvet and snake skin boots.”
- He said, “It’s highly unlikely I’d ever return to this country.”
The interview failed to pick up on many sensitive issues raised, of ‘alienation, moral betterment and jihadism,’ for example. Mariella’s challenge of Mo, insisting Pure is a spy novel surely was arrogant. As if Mo didn’t know what he was writing about! Her statement, “You won’t have the sympathy… in this country at this point of time, three quarters of the population are living under £20,000 a year…” added injury to insult. It was not an equitable comparison for an author of Mo’s educational background, journalism experience and authorial stature. It was rather, ”dehumanizing.” English teachers earned twice that amount, at least, in Hong Kong at that time (she might not know). Mo is not a wage earner like the three quarters Mariella dumps him with. He had a journalist career, his books won awards and have a global market; in Marxist terms, he is a source of productivity, and of a superlative brand for that. Above all, he was not a fresh graduate at that time in 2012, probably a senior at retirement age.
Isn’t it rather absurd that one of our ‘supernova’ writers of this century, was forced out of economic compulsion to leave Britain and move to a country where his pound will stretch? His statement, “ It’s highly unlikely I’d ever return to this country,” is the most tragic and dramatic rebuff of 2012 for so much is at stake. After listening a few times, is it possible that this interview was more of a push off than a hold on? One can feel Mo’s frustration building up. He commented on the, “indignation… depression… humiliation…” in the context of the writers’ predicament; too close to his own home truth. On the whole, the crucial areas where some of his experiences and views that should be explored for our enlightenment were brushed aside.
When Mariella said, “Are you fighting your own jihad against the literary establishment, perhaps cultural imperialism that’s constraining you?” it can hardly be construed, as constructive, inclusive or appreciative; but “alienating”. This clip will provide an interesting take for the study of cross-cultural pragmatics in sociolinguistics. It was not a platform for a major writer and the shaping forces of Mo’s writing from childhood, school days and life are still barricaded from us.
There are unresolved issues about Mo’s latest work, Pure, which might add to his “dismay.” Apart from the disagreement at the interview, the round up of reviews of Pure (Omnivore round up of reviews) highlights these concerns –
- Is it a spy novel? (explicitly from Mariella only)
- Can it be reined in with a tighter plot and structure?
- Does it address the real issues of fundamentalism in Islam?
- Should it get the Booker Man International prize?
Pure is avant-garde (the goal of any advance is not the future but the present: Gertrude Stein) picaresque tragedy, not a spy novel. It has all the elements of the avant-garde picaresque – a living form, senseless violence, spatial and temporal displacement, inner contradictions, living by the wits and breakdown of mainstream narrative – richly embedded in Mo’s encyclopedic knowledge, superb vocabulary, electric tempo and unique wit.
Mariella’s assertion of a spy novel is based on the espionage elements – the recruitment, the jihad, code names, passwords and double crosses in the digital world, setting traps and killing. But they serve merely as a background drop – to project the voices of the empiricists and to empower a true ‘live’ narration of the picaro, Snooky. This is Mo’s maestro’s paradigm – a narrative within the bigger picture. Mo’s protagonist, (the public hero) is powerless and displaced, but ironically, the only character ‘alive’ (free from a mindset) and capable of adjusting his thinking to aid Mo develop his purpose of conveying an implicit moral: much as we get the idea of quirkiness when people make moral choices.
Pure does not “blacken or glorify.” It is not about jihadism but the representation of a displaced and disempowered group in a S.E. Asian society. Mo’s moral code is above transient judgments, and he quotes George Elliot that those who read, “have their sympathies enlarged,” to reiterate that his writing is, “an instrument of moral betterment.” His novels reflect the complexity, corruption and murkiness of underground politics in a part of the world mainly associated with tourism and the jungles. He writes Pure from an outsider’s perception, albeit with the intimacy of a biographer for a Kathoey and is not presumptuous to make any judgment on Islam or jihad. He wants us to understand where a kathoey like Snooky comes from in Southern Thailand; much like how Rey fits into the world as a big Black Thai.
Snooky is our public hero representation. The transgender he-she, displacement and disempowerment in movie world are symbolic of the public voters. Tensions between the rigidity of the leaders and the inventive young reluctant recruit break out into rip-roaring turns of explosive glee; like a resort to drugs from an otherwise sub-civilized world of deception where lives are so abused. The killing of the friends she loved, Doh-Ann and later Jeffri, drive her to surrender to hating the heavies, Look Khreung and Victor Veridian. Into this hotbed of potential wealth, insurgency and subterfuge (oil was found in Mindanao, the Muslim region of South Thailand ), Mo develops the context for the tragic denouement. The moral is nailed by Snooky’s final confession, “imshinyimpure.” Beneath the cathartic irony of the alter ego of victim heroine, we find Snooky died for love; she identifies with love; the anti-dote to killing. The kathoey world is stage dominated but Snooky lived a real life among the dream makers or empire builders.
Pure is a rare geopolitical novel of a quiet corner of the world steaming up ghostly smoke like a volcano in the Ring of Fire; waiting to erupt. Mo’s voices communicate a mixed array of local, regional and colonial rivalry embedded in its history for centuries. It reflects the conflict in Muslin insurgency and Thai politics at the time of Tak Sin (Thai Chinese). Add the snooping West, Mo’s witty juxtapositions of the diverse tribes and their cross-cultural pragmatics and we get a Molotov cocktail of cracking fun in between the horrendous violence, portrayed in the joking tone of Snooky’s voice. Just as we do not expect a fatal explosion at a wedding or nightclub where people are having fun.
Linguistically, Pure provides a new range of sonorously beautiful phonetics; from the hilariously funny basic Thai at the start to the kingdoms on the Sunda shelf, “At the centre of this magic kingdom… Singapore… Malaya, Penang, southern Siam… Cambodia… Borneo…Southern Philippines… the Celebes Sea, Sulawesi Island, Java, Sumatra, Aceh…” mapped out in the Shaykh’s dream whereas the local Imam Umar will be contented with, “Narathiwat, Jala, Singgora and Pattani … conjoined to Kelantan in the manner of the old Sultanate.” Into this milieu, is piled the world’s glossary of nationalities and names so rich I often stopped to savour the range of linguistic repertoire and the resonance of their phonetics and the semantics, or at least, the ethos they evoke.
The intriguing words of Mark Lawson, “It would be a great shame if Mo’s deliberate distance from his country and its publishing structures mean that Pure will come to be seen as the one that got away,” had prompted me to rally round and petition for Mo’s comeback. As another reviewer said, he is becomingly increasingly isolated if he remains inaccessible. We need to bring him back into the literary capital for he deserves to be at the pinnacle with many more great books and awards. Readers praise his “ability to write the weightiest of themes with a light touch,” and for the post-modernists, Mo, “remains a formidable talent whose work deserves more recognition than it has received to date (Brian Finney: California State University). Some mainstream reviewers opine he can benefit with editorial guide and the marketing skills of established publishers. Whatever it is, Mo deserves much better and he should get our support.
Entries for The Man Booker International 2016 are not yet open and they are accepting nominations of books published from 2010- 2014. There might be some technical difficulties for Mo as Chatto and Windus Press is now amalgamated with Random House and his own Paddleless Press has folded up. Turnaround Books published Pure. Will the company nominate Pure for the MBI? Who can recommend The Redundancy of Courage since Paddleless Press no longer exists? I love that book and feel strongly it should win an award. Will a gallant publisher save our world class writer from extinction and put him back in the spotlight with an advance for four books over four years for instance? I am sure we will all be richly rewarded. Despite the economic woes since 2010, Mo’s readership is building up in the UK, China, Hong Kong, USA, the Antipodes and South-East Asia. Mo’s self-exile is a great loss to all and we must work for a restitution to redress either an error of misjudgment or a misplaced affection. He has very loyal friends and readers in the UK.
I was informed of an offer of a permanent room for life at no cost should Mo wish to seek accommodation in London. And we will assist him in any way to create the right environment for his writing. Can Timothy Mo get in touch with Ciriaco or myself for further information if he wishes to make his way back to the UK?
It’s three years since the BBC radio 4 chat and time is full of revelations. One cannot entirely leave Britain for good after living here for so long. We will miss many things conducive to great thinking and writing in the English clime; the bracing weather, ethos of erudite learning, the tolerance that cultivate depths, detachment and quirkiness, and privacy. Besides, time is short and we don’t have immortality. I cannot imagine how many more books we want to read from Timothy Mo. For a start, we don’t know anything about his childhood days, family or personal life and we must have his memoirs. We need Mo and his delightful insights into the peripherals, humans and geopolitical alike, back in Britain and Europe to bequeath to posterity his finest writing. We need his HD omniscience and radar here, for, judging from the 2012 reviews of Pure, Mo is a literary matchbox and his most illuminating match sticks are London based.
Thank you to many readers for keeping up your interest and sharing news of Timothy Mo. Please share this article and write your comments or contact Turnaround Books if you would recommend Timothy Mo’s Pure or other books published from 2010 – 2014 as entry for the Man Booker International 2016. You may contact Timothy Mo or Beyond Thirty Nine if you have ideas and wish to support encouraging him to return to his homeland to write.
Thank you Ciriaco Offeddu for being most encouraging and supportive in this project and to so many others working in the literary world.
5 August 2015
Mo, Timothy. The Monkey King. London: Paddleless P, 2000. —. Sour Sweet. London: Sphere, 1983. —. An Insular Possession. New York: Random, 1987. —. The Redundancy of Courage. London: Vintage, 1991. —. Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard. London: Paddleless P, 1995. —. Renegade or Halo2. London: Paddleless P, 2000.Korea is the Focus but this is China Versus Japan: The Guardian: April10 2013
Boyd Tonkin: Review of Pure by Timothy Mo; 13 April 2012; The Independent
Boyd Tonkin : Timothy Mo – Postcards from the edge; July 1999: The Books Interview: The Independent
Daniel Ben Horin: Timothy Mo is Missing, 17 January 2012 : Huffington Post
Mark Lawson: Pure by Timothy Mo: Review, April 2012 ; The Guardian
Charles Foran: The Rise and Fall, and Rise Again of the Mysterious Timothy Mo: The Globe and Mail: June 2012
The Age of Uncertainty; June 2008
Tom Deveson : April 1012 ; The Sunday Time
Lisa Zanardo : April 2012, The Times
Brian Finney; Migrancy and the Picaresque: Timothy Mo and Renegade or Halo2Ho,
Elaine Yee Lin. Timothy Mo. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2000.
Valeria Melchiotto: Pure by Timothy Mo: Writershub: co. uk
Mariella Forstrup: BBC Radio 4 Open Book