Messy tale of a modern Imelda

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard

Timothy Mo

Paddleless Press £13.99

A brownout is a power failure, not quite a blackout but enough to make the lights go dim and the computers go downright stupid, and according to Timothy Mo it is a daily fact of life in the Philippines, where most of his new novel is set.

The book opens, though, with another kind of "brownout'', as an elderly German professor has himself shat on by a Filipino prostitute. Mo goes into considerable detail, but the shock effect is undercut by a suspicious similarity to a scene Thomas Pynchon described in Gravity's Rainbow over 20 years ago. In that case, poor old Brig-adier Pudding's compulsion resulted from his time in the trenches, when the whole Western Front was one vast latrine.

There is no such explanation here. Pynchon also linked the episode to a consistent strain of imagery about racial fears: white is pure, brown is dirty.Mo's German professor, Pfeidwengeler, turns out to have similarly unfashionable views on race - he is liable to observe that African-Americans commit a disproportionate amount of crime, and blames their genes - so perhaps the same sort of fascination-revulsion informs his sexual tastes, but it isn't clear.

In any case, Pfeidwengeler's anti-racist opponents on the international conference circuit are shown as far worse people. The South African autobiographer Dr Ruth Neumark, all shawl and bone structure, is a memorable monster who seeks the moral high ground merely so as to look down on others. "Her oceanic pity for the suffering masses in the abyss was matched only by the dizzy crest of her personal hauteur." The Libyan poet Omar Hamid, her proteg, is a spiteful nonentity whom Mo brings to a comically sticky end: he gets eaten by cannibals, but since it is non-PC to admit the existence of cannibals, the incident can't be reported.

The novel's first half mainly concerns Victoria Init, wife of the congressman for the imaginary Philippine city of Cobernador de Leon. Mo gives the latitude and longitude of the place, but they actually fall splash in the middle of the Sulu Sea. Victoria, nevertheless, is determined to put her town on the social and political map. "She wanted to be Imelda, but Meldy without the eccentricities, Marcos without the mistakes." To achieve it she raises dodgy funds to build a grand conference centre.

The second half covers the inaugural conference. Mrs Init and the other Filipino characters fade into the background and a whole new cast is introduced, Neumark, Hamid et al, with Pfeidwengeler making his first appearance since the messy prologue. This is an awkward way of proceeding. One long chapter is a transcript of a forum on "Asian Values in the 20th-Century Context", which allows Mo to give his ideas and his research material a good airing, but which again seems awkward.

Meanwhile there is a revenge subplot under way, to provide us with a climactic ending. When this duly arrives, with guns and grenades going off for a page or two, it seems perfunctory and formal: a shame, because the crime being avenged is so brilliantly handled in an earlier scene.

Mo has published the novel himself. There are faint signs of this in the economical-looking cover design, the higher than average number of misprints and the string of clumsy idioms which an editor might have picked up. Perhaps the established publishers didn't want to pay a six-figure advance, or maybe they didn't like the heave-making prologue.

It is certainly an uneven performance for a writer as experienced as Mo, but his transparent, low-key style, moving easily from comic to horrific, his acute reckoning of the small change of human interaction, whether between groups of strangers or a married couple, and his engagement with themes a bracing world away from adultery in NW3 or even literary rivalry in Wll, are strengths worth having.