There’s a story that when Kazuo Ishiguro was studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia his tutor took him to one side. Ishiguro was at the time writing stories like the one contained in Firebird 2 – a punchy little McEwanesque conte in which the narrator’s mother dies from eating a poisoned fish. The tutor, who had worked in advertising, explained to Ishiguro the concept of the Unique Selling Point, or USP: the USP being the quality about a product which the advertiser wishes to stress in order to establish the identity of the brand. Thus, the USP of Fairy Liquid used to be that it was gentle on the washer-up’s hands, but is now – sign of the times? – the fact that it’s better value for money than its competitors. ‘Kazuo,’ the tutor allegedly said, ‘your USP is that you are Japanese.’
The rest is history, or literature, or literary history. It would be difficult to imagine a more Japanese English novel than Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day, with its samurai butler. According to Ian Buruma, there is a Japanese folk-tale motif in which a character finds and makes use of a magic mask only to discover, when the time comes to remove it, that the mask has become stuck to his face. That is the plot of Ishiguro’s book.
One can imagine comparable tips about USPs being given to other writers of the past and present. (‘Fyodor Mikhailovich,’ Dostoevsky would have been told, ‘my advice to you is, stick to nutters – they’re what you do best.’) If Timothy Mo doesn’t have what one would exactly call a USP – lots of good writers don’t – he certainly has a preferred setting and a preferred type of central character. The setting has to do with the juxtaposition of cultures, and the character is a figure who is experiencing that juxtaposition at first hand.
In The Monkey King (1978), Mo’s first novel, the meeting of worlds takes a deceptively domestic form – so much so, in fact, that one might have mistaken the author for a sort of half-Cantonese would-be Barbara Pym, a candidate member of the school of downbeat English ironists. Wallace Nolasco, the novel’s hero, is a Macao-born ‘Portuguese’ Chinese who marries into the household of the Poons, a wealthy Hongkong Cantonese family who need to marry off one of the daughters Mr Poon has had by one of his concubines. ‘To have married May Ling, the daughter of a second concubine, into a respectable Cantonese family would have been an impossibility. Alternatively, setting her sights lower within the Chinese community would have been a major loss of face. Under the circumstances, a poor Portuguese was a creative solution.’
The novel recounts Wallace’s adventures among the Poons, and the gradual way he rises to become head of the family. One of the book’s strengths – one of Mo’s great strengths as a writer – is an alertness to the ways in which racial stereotypes work. ‘Understand the English and you will understand the Chinese too,’ Wallace’s father had told him. ‘Wallace did not dispute the analogy. The English were a nation of crafty hypocrites as well.’ Mo shows how that kind of racially-based, cartoon-like perception develops into a subtler, more nuanced awareness of what the Poons are really like – an awareness which at the same time has an ineradicable racial component.
The excellent Sour Sweet (1982), Mo’s second novel, takes that process a stage further. It describes the Chen family’s attempt to set up a take-away Chinese restaurant in South London in the Sixties: alongside that narrative is a darker and nastier plot about feuding and drug-smuggling among the Triad gangs of Soho. The above-ground story, of the Chen family’s gradually increasing success and gradually increasing assimilation, has a wonderfully sunny and optimistic quality to its comedy; the subterranean story is nasty, persuasive, informative (about how the Triads work) and seriously violent.
At the time of their publication, it was possible to fail to notice that both The Monkey King and Sour Sweet had a historical component to them, the former novel being as informative about Hong Kong from the Forties onwards as the second book was about the experience of Chinese immigrants in London in the Sixties. Mo’s third book, An Insular Possession (1986), was full-bloodedly and unmistakably a historical novel – a very, very ambitious historical novel. The book is set in the 1830s and 1840s, and describes the clash between the British and Chinese Governments over the opium trade. The vauntingness of the subject-matter is more than lived up to by the book’s length (a cool 650 pages) and style: Mo tells his story through a blend of letters, diaries, contemporaneous journalism and present-tense narration, a lot of it written in Victorian pastiche.
The overall effect is impressive, and the historical resonances set up by Mo have gained rather than faded with time. Anyone reading the novel now, five years after it was published, can’t fail to notice that Britain’s craven policy towards China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre has its roots in the same motives which underlay the imperialist policies adopted in the 1840s, when we went to war in order to protect our right to sell opium to the Chinese: that’s to say, everything has always followed from the fact that China is the largest potential market in the history of the world. Britain’s attempts to exploit that market were once aggressive, are now appeasing, and have been consistently shameful. But at the same time, while An Insular Possession tells a good story and convincingly evokes a moral climate, the novel has a big technical problem, which is that it is boring – the ratio between effort and reward is irreparably skewed by the fact that the reader has to wade through so much only averagely well done cod-Victorian prose.
Nobody is going to say that Mo’s new novel, The Redundancy of Courage, is boring – though some readers, it’s fair to say, may find its particular kind of action-packed un-boringness to be somewhat stylised and voulu. The novel describes the Indonesian invasion and annexation of East Timor in 1975, and tells the story of the native resistance movement which took to the hills and fought the invaders: in the novel East Timor becomes ‘Danu’, Fretilin, the resistance movement, becomes FAKINTIL, and the Indonesians become the malais.
Mo’s novels have always been full of things being blown up and blown apart: even The Monkey King had a scene in it where Wallace Nolasco demolished an underwater paddy-field obstruction with the use of stolen explosives; and there were some memorable explosions in An Insular Possession, as in the sea battle where ‘before Gideon’s horrified eyes, a human arm, including the hand and fingers, suddenly lands with a heavy thump, failing to bounce.’ ‘Failing to bounce’ ... there’s a really horrible vividness (as well as an undisguised relish) about that moment; and in the new novel, bulging as it is with guns, bombing, strafing and ambushes, there’s plenty more where that came from:
The watch-towers and bagged emplacements were the big problems and we’d agreed the priority was to take them out first. X. Ray and his buddy had crept as near to the biggest emplacement as they dared. I could hear the malais talking, maybe wondering what was for dinner. X. Ray threw a metal egg onto their plates, a nasty surprise because they suddenly stopped talking. Then a babble broke out. Just before the grenade exploded, a light anti-tank rocket took the first of the two watch-towers from underneath. They’d taken a risk and got directly below. What a show! Most of the protection was at the sides, with no netting underneath to prematurely detonate rocket-propelled grenades or other missiles. So the whole contents went sky-high, machinegun, men, searchlight, ammo-boxes, a helmet. Shit, it was raining bits of malai.
The voice in which the story is told belongs to a Chinese hotel-proprietor called Adolph Ng (‘To pronounce it, imagine you have been constipated a long time. Now strain. There you have my surname’). Ng is the vehicle through which a lot of what we have come to expect from Mo is delivered to us: in particular, it is Ng’s unillusioned perspective that gives the book its comedy – and despite the extreme bleakness of the subject-matter, The Redundancy of Courage is often very funny. Ng is one of Mo’s trans-cultural hybrids, in large part because he’s racially distinct from the Lusophone Danuese, but also because he has spent three years at university in Toronto, and hence become an ‘over-educated colonial’. In addition, Ng is homosexual, which further heightens his ambiguous nichelessness; he isn’t really at home anywhere, in any company. It’s from this exposed but also detached position that Ng gives free rein to his thoughts and opinions, many of them – as we would expect from a creation of Mo’s – about race, many of them – as we would also expect – calculated, as he put it in a recent interview, to ‘offend everybody equally’. ‘If you could say, as a generalisation, that all Malays are idle,’ Ng observes, watching an Australian journalist being dragged off to be shot, ‘you could also say that all Australians are brave, or at least non-respecters of authority.’ He talks elsewhere about ‘the in-born Danuese talent for making a shambles of everything, for manic disorganisation’, and about some Chinese shopkeepers advancing to greet the invaders, ‘their faces contorted into the false and ready smile of our race’.
If Ng does not sound like one of life’s guerrillas, that’s because he isn’t. Although a friend of several senior people in FAKOUM, the movement which was to metamorphose into FAKINTIL, Ng is apolitical, until he gets swept up into the resistance movement by accident. Thereafter, he lives and fights with them in the mountainous interior of Danu, and gradually comes to develop an expertise as a sapper and demolition specialist. ‘It was a craft – mining, booby-trapping – that was peculiarly Chinese. I mean in its ingenuity, in its low small-mindedness, its attention to detail, its pettifogging neatness.’ Paralleling this change in Ng is the growth to heroic stature of the leaders of the guerrilla movement: the exceptional circumstances throw up exceptional people to meet them. The ‘courage’ of the book’s title is their courage; it’s ‘redundant’ because, in the face of the American-backed, American-trained and American-equipped invasion, the resistance has no chance whatever of success.
The Redundancy of Courage is a very strong novel: in subject-matter and in manner, a conscious attempt to write something as different as possible from the bulk of literary fiction published today. But having succeeded with narrative, setting, characterisation and moral imagination, it’s a pity that Mo didn’t lake a bit more trouble over the actual business of writing. He has, a trifle unguardedly, talked in interview about the novel being ‘incredibly boring to write’, ‘the most tedious book that I’ve ever had to write’. Unfortunately, it shows, in the routine use of cliché (one of the worst being ‘if you’ll pardon the cliché’) and in passages where Mo seems simply not to have bothered. ‘Was he unscrupulous enough to do this?’ Ng wonders at one point. ‘Yes! If he could convince himself there was a higher purpose which justified it.’ Only a very good writer – a writer as good as Mo – could get away with the amount of lame writing there is in this book.
Au fond, The Redundancy of Courage is a political novel. The politics it expresses could hardly be more straightforwardly anti-American: at the dénouement we learn that the Americans had backed the invasion of Danu because Danu controlled access to one of the very few waterways sufficiently deep to allow a nuclear submarine to pass through into the Pacific. The other part of the book’s political content carries forward the concern Mo showed in An Insular Possession with how history is manufactured: where the earlier book revealed the elisions, falsifications, re-writings and straightforward mistakes involved in the invention of the past, the new novel demonstrates how similar processes are at work in the creation of the daily news. It also shows just how important the news is to people in the position of the novel’s main characters. ‘It’s worth repeating: if it doesn’t get on to TV in the West, it hasn’t happened.’ In that unhappy truth there probably isn’t much comfort for the people of East Timor, a third of whom died in the wake of the Indonesian invasion. One wonders what the survivors think about what has happened in Kuwait.