Pure by Timothy Mo (Turnaround Books - April, 2012)
Warning: This novel by Timothy Mo is not simply written as a stream of consciousness but is an avalanche of tickling observations that may, at times, make you laugh out loud. It may also reveal some pungent and uncomfortable home truths.
With due respect, does Mr Mo need an introduction? Although he is an established literary celebrity with prestigious awards to his name, he seems to make interesting choices when it comes to promoting his work, including a decision to self-publish through Paddleless Press. Mo seems to believe in autonomy, good for him. Be that as it may, his writing is, now as ever, hilariously funny, highly original, of high impact, ‘high in fibre’ and consequently ‘high-five’. Pure is his first novel after a decade, and it has been well worth the wait.
The story is set across SE Asia, spanning from the sophisticated metropolis of Bangkok to the hinterlands of bumpkins such as Mindanao. It is written in different voices but its main protagonist is the urban, 6 ft tall lady-boy called Snooky aka Ahmed. She is a hip transvestite with legs like Marlene Dietrich as well as being an aspiring film critic who likes to party beyond excess. Her camp sensibility, slightly dyslexic frame of mind, quirky wit and streetwise perspectives are most endearing. Despite all the make-up and trickery she is approachable. The opening lines of the book may give you a better intro:
Call me a Believer with a Blackberry, the Mohammedan with a Mac.  Something happened during my walk on the mild side.  I have never added up to what I wanted. The sum of me has never equalled my hopes.  I wanted to be Miss World and found myself serving a life sentence in a male body.
Did I mention that Snooky happens to be a Muslim? At first this fact is of little importance. But when she gets busted by the police and found in possession of enough drugs to run a pharmacy, she is given the choice of either being shortlisted for a death sentence Thai-style or infiltrating a cell of Islamic warriors and becoming an undercover informant. Only, things don’t quite turn out as her spy master and old Etonian, Victor ‘Vice Versa’ Veridian anticipates as Snooky is a bit of an anti-007. After she is despatched to the sticks, Snooky not only refuses to ‘play ball’ with MI6 but enjoys to Miss-inform the kingpin who set her up. She bravely writes ambiguous reports and fails to give away any sensible, let alone sensitive, information. Although she has joined the warriors of Allah against her will, the seemingly impossible happens; Snooky discovers her masculine side, spiritual values and a non-Western lifestyle and perhaps more surprising still, she integrates.
As she gains the respect and trust of her Muslim brothers in arms, she uses her cinematic skills to shoot a dramatic documentary ie. propaganda video, by modelling the scenes meticulously on the work of her favourite film director Akira Kurosawa. She takes pride in keeping to a black and white art house look, and cleverly casts and masquerades hostages and villagers to achieve special effects. She later convinces the Imam to let her produce a series of Reality TV programs for which UK shows seem to have offered the blueprint e.g. Big Brotherhood House, Blind Hate and Have I got Jews for you. The references and puns inview of the movie industry amount to a rich, postmodernist feast, which raised the hairs at the back of my neck with pure horrified pleasure. Snooky is determined to put fun back into fundamentalism, she reinvents, overcomes and perhaps slightly perverts, but always with the best intentions. Snooky is torn between pure hedonistic freedom and pure Islamic submission. But things are more complex than that as Snooky is a changing man as well as an unreliable narrator.
Victor is a different, more sober, pedantic and at times even tedious voice. He dutifully reminds us of the historical contexts and international politics that shaped SE Asia. Alas, there is not much fun in Victor to put anywhere as he represents the British stiff upper-lip colonialism and Anglo-Catholicism which feels justified to meddle with power in all corners of the world. He also grumbles that the Americans themselves used terrorist means to gain their independence, back in the Tea Party days. He grumbles a lot. If terrorism is successful it is likely to be called a revolution, which is partly why Victor tries to remain incognito.
Shaykh aka ‘Milk Shaykh’ is the leader of the mujahedin cell and has become Snooky’s role model/mentor as she strives to engage with new values. He is a Pakistani scientist who is disgusted with the artistic ambivalence that lurks everywhere yet tolerates it as a means to an end. It is his ambition to set up a Caliphate according to chaste principles. His logical bigotry is slightly reminiscent of Plato’s ideals. At the same time he comes across as slightly hypocritical as he secretly sneaks off to visit his wife in the nearby village.
This novel is a mix of controversial opinions and each voice is compromised in one way or another. Ultimately there are no moral high grounds only perspectives yet there are indeed values we need to fight for. Mo seems to suggest that those values are decency, honesty, loyalty, friendship, respect and an understanding of our own identity. At least those are the values Snooky holds to as she is torn between more abstract, even toxic forces. We are invited to join her as she uncovers the prejudices and clichés that surround the age-old chasm between East and West.
The language is so inventive, so symphonic it makes you giddy, and yet it is as fitting as a six-fingered glove for a six-fingered hand. Pure seems almost too prim a title for a book that is so bursting with vibrancy but otherwise this book is perfect, nearly.