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The Books Interview: Timothy Mo - Postcards from the edge

Globe-trotting Timothy Mo is back - with a hero from the world's new underclass of migrant serfs. By Boyd Tonkin
Timothy Mo has touched down in London for the first time in over two years - and he likes the old place less than ever. A decade has passed since the endlessly versatile (and endlessly mischievous) novelist re- located to his native Hong Kong as a springboard for the perpetual travels in south-east Asia that feed his imagination and fill his books.

Even Mo's blood pressure - which he has to monitor before he indulges his passion for diving - drops dramatically in those congenial climes. Such as - Cambodia? "London seems a more dangerous place then Phnom Penh. There's more loutishness and violence in the air. You're more likely to get shot dead in Phnom Penh, but it's not threatening in the way that Hackney is."

Not much loutishness or violence seeps into the sun-dappled garden of the Bloomsbury house where Mo is staying with friends. England he may have spurned; but a certain idea of English civic virtue still casts a spell. "This is a superb society," he says, "and the people who knock it - the opportunity that's here, and even the justice that's here - they're measuring it against a perfect ideal that doesn't exist". All the same, he adds: "I don't want to live here. I want fresh and interesting subject- matter".

Born, improbably enough, in 1950, the trim and youthful Mo does "fresh and interesting" as well as any writer of his generation. By the age of 32, this survivor of an English boarding-school, Oxford graduate and "genuinely expert" fight reporter on Boxing News had already carved out two succulent slices of Chinese family life with his early novels, The Monkey King and Sour Sweet. Then his horizons broadened.

An Insular Possession charted Hong Kong's birth as a Crown Colony with a verve and cunning that plants it in the first rank of postwar period fictions. As for The Redundancy of Courage, it still counts (albeit under a thin disguise) as the most searching of all creative responses to Indonesian genocide in East Timor. It's a point worth bearing in mind when Mo flaunts his political incorrectitude - as he likes to do.

"It seems to me absolutely demonstrable that cultures are different," he says, underlining the central motif of his new novel Renegade or Halo2? (Paddleless Press, pounds 17.99). "And if they're different, they will by definition be unequal... A society where you're taken off in the middle of the night for torture, or your kids fail an exam at school because you don't pay a bribe to the teacher: they are inferior societies."

In 1990, this gourmet of cultures discovered the Philippines - the setting for his last novel, and much of this one. He fell in love with the mixed- up Malay-Chinese-Hispanic-American archipelago, whose incorrigible hybridity accounts for the new book's odd monicker. His narrator-hero Rey, a gentle giant born of a brief commercial liaison between a black US serviceman and a local bar-girl, reveals that the titular squared token of sanctity refers to a messy Filipino iced dessert called "hallow-hallow". This "many- hued and multi-textured confection" yokes alien ingredients luridly but delectably together - like the islands, like the book. Rey calls it "candied napalm".

Mo delights in the tolerance bred by this "delicious hotch-potch". "You can go to the worst Filipino policeman and say, `I'm having a hard day. Give me a break,' and you might just get it. They're a warm bunch."

For a writer, too, the flamboyant creole of spoken pinoy English offers golden opportunities that Mo takes with relish. I loved the recurrent concept of "mind-advance dirty": a terser form of Hamlet's "thinking too precisely on the event"; letting your fears of the future ruin the present.

The first fruit of Mo's affection for the Philippines came with the gamey satire of Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard in 1995. Notoriously, a pungent blend of low offers and high dudgeon then thrust him out of London publishing and into the DIY operations of his own "Paddleless Press".

Random House had offered him pounds 125,000 for the novel. Thrice shortlisted for the Booker, Mo felt less than chuffed by this sum. Yet he had already decided he disliked the firm's new conglomerate ambience. Other publishers then turned up their corporate noses at the infamous scatological encounter of professor and prostitute that opens this Swiftian midden of corruption among pinoy and Western pundit alike.

So Paddleless came into being: an impromptu lifeboat for a proud author up the creek. Mo feels "infuriated" by the presumption that self-publishing means a lapse of editorial care. "What makes people think that it's not edited, that I've just written it and chucked it to the printer?" On the contrary: more eyes spend more time on his copy now. A reversion to publishing by suits "didn't even occur" to the author. "It's my book. I own it. I control it."

His hero owns and controls nothing. Rey knocks about Asia, the Gulf, east London and Cuba as an illegal migrant worker - one of "the international underclass who were the slaves of our century". The lowest of the low in economic terms, his native wit and a sound Jesuit education transform him into the sharpest of the sharp as adventurer, observer and street- smart philosopher.

Is Rey an unlikely character? No, replies Mo, explaining the interplay of nature and nurture that lends the novel's picaresque lurches and skedaddles a thematic glue. The "essence" of personal talent or ambition can vault over the "context" of time and culture. "People jump way out of their context. Just to take two British novelists: Paul Bailey's father was a road-sweeper and Peter Ackroyd's father drove lorries up and down the Great North Road."

Rey might treat either job as the cushiest of numbers. Framed by rich kids in Manila, he narrowly dodges death on a ship crewed by psychotic Ukrainians. After a deftly observed interlude serving in a Royal Navy dentist's household in Hong Kong, he then has to wriggle out of virtual slavery in a noxious Gulf emirate. "Bohaiden" is a composite, although "the place I most wanted to write about was Kuwait, because they've got the most evil reputation for mistreating immigrant labour".

And so, in prose of inexhaustible fizz and bite, Rey carries on his steerage- class world tour. A knack for Houdini-standard Great Escapes whisks him from one scrape to another. This habit is "like a ghost or shadow following me," admits the peripatetic Mo. "Every single one of my books has got escapes in it... It's like hiccups."

Novels with the dash, the scope, the prodigal invention and torrential verbal energy of this one come along as rarely as a snowstorm in Manila. Some readers' gratitude, however, may be tempered by its monsoon of cultural generalities. Rey loves the ethnic thumbnail sketch, from the Pakistanis in the Gulf who "to a man... revelled in the spectacle of the last agonies" at public beheadings, through the "high, querulous, injured tone the West Indian malcontent adopts under pressure" in London, to the lubricious Cubana who is "the horniest chick in the world, bar none".

Character, not author, yes; but Mo defends the validity of such labelling. "This is a taboo area. You're walking on a minefield," he says. "Stereotype has got a negative connotation, in ordinary life and for a novelist. But I've never found it a bad word. It's a survival blueprint that human beings carry around. Stereotypes are more likely to be correct than anything else".

Mo stresses that individuals will rise above the imputed traits of a group, as his characters in practice do. Yet he does believe that people can be sucked down into the "lowest common denominator" of their context. "If you've got family, what do you do in a country like Thailand, if the school comes to you and asks for a bribe for your kid to pass the exam? Are you throwing your kids into the abyss or do you want them to be an attorney or an engineer? You pay it."

If the broad-brush epithets of Renegade... provoke a ripple or three of dissent, its successor may well inspire an even bigger splash. For his next novel, Mo has chosen as his hero a "virulent Fascist". "I want to write about it sympathetically," he says. Yet he denies that he actively wants to tease liberal pieties - "because, fundamentally, I subscribe to them... I'm a Labour voter. But there's the truth of things, and there's how we would like them to be."

Besides, he has an eye for posterity as much as for the tastes of a nation admired from afar. "I don't see any reason why the English reading public would warm to my books," Mo says. Thousands will disagree. Yet he's convinced that "People like a mirror; they don't want a window. So I'm right on the margin now, in my treatment and my subject, but I firmly believe I'm writing about things that will be seen to have been significant, 50 years down the line. It will move to the centre as every year goes by."

Timothy Mo, a biography

Timothy Mo was born in Hong Kong in 1950, the son of a Cantonese father and English mother. After schools in Hong Kong and Britain, he studied at St John's College, Oxford. He worked at the New Statesman and then for Boxing News - an association that continued to 1990. The Monkey King appeared in 1978, followed by Sour Sweet (1982, later filmed by Mike Newell), An Insular Possession (1986), The Redundancy of Courage (1991), Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (1995) and Renegade or Halo2?. Three times on the Booker shortlist, he has won the Hawthornden and Geoffrey Faber prizes. Now based again in Hong Kong, he travels widely in Asia.