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Pure Mo

Monday, 14 May, 2012

“We Asians like being Asians, Siamese being Siamese, Malays being Malays, Viets being Viets. But a warning. Scratch us, there’s a snarling xenophobe behind the smile.” So speaks Snooky, the hero/heroine of Pure, the latest novel by Timothy Mo. By the way, Snooky is a well-endowed Bangkok lady boy who joins a group of bloodthirsty Islamist terrorists flitting between the porous borders of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Yes, you’ll need a vivid imagination to cope with all that, but for Timothy Mo, who has made a trade out of what is called “bi-cultural diversity”, the world of bi-sexual extremism is a logical step in his ongoing meditations about imperialism and colonialism in South-East Asia.

Pure by Mo Islam is central to the region’s experience of imperialism and colonialism, but so was British rule, which fills the elites with nostalgia for an idealized past and compels Snooky’s generation to master the former master’s language. Here s/he recalls the faltering first steps:

“I am not a native speaker but I have an affinity for the English language. Once I heard an African say, ‘The English language is a harlot — she will go with anyone who cares to use her.’ (Me, I figured that just made her one of my Gang). What she was more like to me was the Fairy Godmother, finding me a ragged Cinderella without make-up, crying in the kitchen. She waved her wand but, alack and alas, midnight came all too soon. Yah, just thinking in English always made me calm down. It predisposed me to compromise and rationality, made me find nuance and ambiguity. Of course, I started like every other ungifted Siamese idiot with stuff like ‘Him have cold same-same you before but now already sneeze littun-bit only.’ But as with anything — tennis, ballet, rhythmic gymnastics: oh, to prance twinkle-toed with swirling ribbon and whirling hoop! — I who had the talent soon left everyone at the starting-line behind, even though for a long time my accent dogged me like a soi cur, made my farang friends, even Avril , wince. Maybe was my grating Tranny voice but , more, my lazy Thai tongue. You spoke Siamese without one but the farang needed the tongue to speak English, just like you needed a jack to change a car wheel. In the end to switch cultures or change languages was easier than converting from Fahrenheit to Celsius. When I spoke English I was an aristo, when I spoke native languages I was same-same everyone. No, worse and weaker than them.”

Mo is a word wizard in the Joycean sense and his Pure is as challenging as much of the Dubliner’s musings. Is it good or very good? Hard to say at this point, but it is certainly not same-same.


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