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The Independent Culture
Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard by Timothy Mo, Paddleless Press pounds 5.99. Take the name of that creek up which you may find yourself minus a paddle, and set it beside the first chapter of Timothy Mo's self-published novel - a description of a Filipina prostitute servicing a German coprophiliac client which does not spare the reader - and the "brownout" metaphor requires extended reinterpretation. Mo's scene is the Philippines, where electrical power is rarely at full spate. His real subject, though, is the sewer along which political power flows. Centre stage is the wily Victoria Init, a provincial Congressman's wife and admirer of Imelda Marcos. She organises a "prestigious" (but ludicrous) environmental conference in her husband's home base of Gobernador de Leon, which attracts an international assortment of speakers. It's a punchy and ambitious satire on globe-trotting academics and the local politics of the Pacific Rim - Dickensian in its purpose, but otherwise fully engaged with the world as it is today.

Justine by Alice Thompson, Virago pounds 6.99. Writers about sexual obsession can find various moulds into which to pour their liquid prose, from the courtly tradition of knights enthralled by pitiless ladies to the ever- popular Sadeian model of libertines violating innocent females. This catwalk- slim novella uses the conventions of the former to take revenge on the latter. Thompson's hero is an aesthete whose godlike looks are marred only by his club foot. Fixated on the portrait of a beautiful woman, Justine, he then bumps into the woman herself one day in the National Gallery. The fatal trail down which this encounter leads him - and us - involves twin sisters, deceptive addresses, murders, mazes and dungeons. It all seems terrifically fin de siecle, but not, unfortunately (and despite the modern setting), the siecle whose fin we are living through now.

The Missionary & the Libertine: Love & War in East & West by Ian Buruma, Faber pounds 8.99. In the introduction to these essays, Buruma argues that the values which have shot so many countries of Asia up to their present dizzying heights of prosperity are not Asian at all, but colonial ideas placed at the service of independent nationhood. George Brown, as Foreign Secretary, once called Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew (to his face, mind you) "the finest Englishman East of Suez", a quality also sensed by Lee's great admirer, Mrs Thatcher. Yet these values are not simply occidental transplants: they are hybrids, typified by the crossroads mentality of the Philippines as glimpsed in Timothy Mo's book, reviewed above. Buruma, an Anglo-Dutchman with awesome cultural references, is very successful in partially demythifying the orient. Whether it is getting to the root of Yukio Mishima's surprising appeal in the West (he's not particularly big in Japan), taking apart the racial ideas behind Michael Crichton's Rising Sun, or looking at the psychology of Korean Olympianism, he is interesting and often provocative.

Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus by Anthony Storr, HarperCollins pounds 6.99. Less than a month after 39 devotees of the Heaven's Gate cult were persuaded to depart from life by their leader, Father John Do, this seems a good moment to meditate on gurus. "Respected teachers" in the original Sanskrit are seen by the veteran psychological writer Anthony Storr as largely intolerant, elitist and friendless control-freaks who harness (prey on, if you prefer) the moral weaknesses of others. They usually profess asceticism but "sometimes end up living in luxury", and charisma is essential to the job-description. Storr concedes that most - even an obvious charlatan like Gurdjieff - actually believe much of what they teach, which removes us from the shyster's fairground stall and into the psychotherapist's consulting room. Gurus under analysis are a mixed bunch: Jim Jones and David Koresh in company with Freud, Jung, Rudolf Steiner and the founder of the Jesuits. There's a final, compassionate, discussion of why we fall for them.

Resident Alien: the New York Diaries by Quentin Crisp, Flamingo pounds 7.99. Quentin Crisp is one of those people (Jeffrey Bernard is another) who've become more famous for a style of being than for doing anything in particular. His maidenly incompetence in the face of new experience is a superbly sophisticated performance, which he keeps up brilliantly throughout these memoirs of the years 1991-4. Crisp's politeness and geniality are unruffled through a succession of Gay Pride appearances, theatrical invitations, celebrity encounters ("I go where the fare is paid"). He is rambling, camp, gently satirical, and sometimes successfully epigrammatic ("In America every man is an island, seeking to establish trade relations across a dark and dangerous sea").

Fashion & Perversity: A Life of Vivienne Westwood and The Sixties Laid Bare by Fred Vermorel, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. Vermorel, an old friend of Westwood and her husband Malcolm McLaren, writes the first biographical half of this book very oddly in the first person, as Westwood herself. The second half, piggyback, consists of his own Sixties memoirs, full of pompous and shallow Situationism, but a pleasant read compared to the portrayal of Viv 'n' Malcolm. In this repulsive story I can believe that the naivete of the Pistols was systematically exploited in a way which perhaps led to the deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. But is it possible that McLaren's poverty-stricken grandmother, Rose (who "doted on Malcolm"), was so overlooked by the couple that the old woman simply died of neglect and starvation?

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