SECOND THOUGHTS / File under nuts: Timothy Mo on his first novel, The Monkey King (Vintage, pounds 5.99)

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The Independent Culture
THE ONLY easy thing about my first novel was traditionally the hardest part, getting it published. Less than a fortnight after delivering the manuscript in May 1977 I received a charming letter of acceptance from Diana Athill of Andre Deutsch, the editor of Jean Rhys and V S Naipaul, no less. I was 26 and jubilant. Deluded youth]

Looking back on The Monkey King is as painful and farcical as looking back on first love. Encouraged by my new status as a novelist, I telephoned a girl I admired. 'Hello, can I speak to Caroline?' 'Who's this?' 'I'm the tall, dark, handsome one from last night.' 'Oh, thank Christ for that. I thought it was that little Chinese guy.' This was an augury.

Amidst the praise of Diana's letter was the warning: 'It's a hard, lonely road. I can't begin to tell you how grudging and stingy the business of becoming accepted is.' The book was chosen by Hilary Bailey of the now defunct New Fiction Society; it later won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize by some miracle, and received a handful of good reviews which now look a lot better doctored. The South China Morning Post said The Monkey King was 'so bad it should never have been published'; with the headline 'File under nuts'. It was certainly what I was paid as an advance. At Boxing News we thought of head-hunting the sub. The Jamaican Sunday Gleaner noted that the book beggared description, was full of unintentionally funny passages, and altogether inferior to 'The House of Mr Biswas' (sic) by Naipaul.

The economic climate chilled, Deutsch held on to my second novel Sour Sweet for nearly two years before it was published - and then only with the benefit of an Arts Council grant to the publisher (not me). I would have died a mute Mo had The Monkey King been submitted at this time. The literature bodies decided to give publishing a shot in the arm by promoting Twenty Best of Young British Authors (under the age of 40). I was 31. Diana submitted The Monkey King. It didn't make the list.

Sour Sweet then saved my bacon. Acts of utterly disinterested kindness from complete strangers like Paul Bailey, Francis King, Melvyn Bragg, Hunter Davies, Anne Redmon, Thomas Hinde, and Peter Giddy, the manager of Hatchard's, gave the book momentum. One of the Best of British judges conceded I had been their choice as 21st best novelist under 40. T'ank you, sorr.

I never looked at The Monkey King for seven years. It had been monstrously difficult to write - the novel as a form didn't come to me. I shaped every sentence in my head before writing it in long-hand, without revisions. Since then I've learned not to try - in the way that a good boxer doesn't. But slightly over-written as they are, I've never brought off anything as funny or as sharply characterised as those early scenes from The Monkey King again, nor will I. It's about as likely as regaining the 28-inch waistline of the boy who wrote them. For the kind few friends who purchased one of the 2,500 copies, their investment of pounds 5.25 outperformed bricks and mortar with second-hand booksellers. And Miss Athill still thinks it's my best book.

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