Books: Manila ice cream

Renegade or Halo2 by Timothy Mo Paddleless Press pounds 17.99

Hmm, nice cover. Ordinarily, of course, this is the last thing you should judge a book by, since most authors cede control to marketers and designers. But Timothy Mo is a rare and famous exception, because he has chosen to publish his novel himself. Renegade or Halo2 must look almost exactly how the author wants it to. The background is black, like the lead character (one can hardly say hero of someone so unsympathetic) Rey Archimedes Blondel Castro, born and raised in the barrios of Mactan, one of the 7,000 islands in the Philippines. He towers over his friends, who give him nicknames including Sugar - after Sugar Ray Robinson the boxer - Frankenstein and Gorilla. And here's a surprise: the nigger, as he is also called, is well hung.

No one can say Mo is afraid of stereotypes: Rey's Filipino sidekick Danton is wiry and wily; Asian politicians throw tantrums and cast blame like five-year-olds; the Smiths, an English family, are formal and correct. If a white European had written this stuff it would be laughed at or despised, but Mo has Asian blood, so that presumably makes his crude cartoons okay.

The cover is decorated with a hazy, halucinogenic image of an ice cream sundae, which relates to the impenetrable title. Halo2 is pronounced halo-halo, it turns out, "being the many-hued and multi-textured confection of ice-cream, cereals, neon syrups, crystallised fruits, frosty shavings, leguminous preserves and bloated pulses that you can find under different names all over South Asia". Halo2 is another of Rey's nicknames, because of his mixed parentage, and a recurrent emblem for the heady cocktail of cultures through which he moves. Mo expertly evokes the cultural car crash that is the Philippines, its Malay and Chinese elements morphed by three centuries of Spanish rule before the American military arrived to usher in "fifty years in Hollywood".

The book itself is a curious collision of styles, with the picaresque of Moll Flanders, the cool ultra-violence and revenge motive of a Death Wish movie, and the fact-packing of a travel guide to South East Asia. Maybe it's really about colour: the vibrant candies of Halo2, the hue of Rey's skin, his rainbow language which blends pinoy patois with Jesuit Latin and scholarly English; and colour as in evocative language, at its most powerful in a rape-murder scene that turns the stomach.

"There's no denying the virtuosity ..." says a quote on the cover, and there isn't, but that elipsis suggests editing, as though the reviewer had actually concluded "... but he's also highly self-indulgent." Mo gets annoyed when people presume that self-published means unedited, but a stronger, kinder hand than his own would have pointed out that colour is not enough. The book, like Rey, goes everywhere but nowhere. It is magnificent, flamboyant, sporadically captivating, and pointless.

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