Sunday 24 September 2017

Review: Pure by Timothy Mo

Turnaround, €23.10

JAMES LAWLESS

It is over a decade since Timothy Mo -- a three-time contender for the Booker Prize -- wrote his last novel. In his new work, Pure, which he describes as a "distillation... where its principals have not always been exigent", the title plays as much on the impurities of race as it does on the cocaine which the main character Snooky, a Thai transvestite, ingests.



Snooky is a nickname from the Thai word sanook meaning fun, and which the English-educated hedonist in his pink beret and leather trousers prefers to his real name Ahmed. ("Who wants to be fricking Ahmed?").

This provides Mo with a vehicle through Snooky to poke fun at fundamentalism.

The story -- character-driven, as Mo insists -- starts slowly with some encyclopaedic and peripatetic musings on diverse themes, not all terrorist-linked, which seem to jar slightly with his professed reverence for the laconic Jorge Luis Borges.

But Mo is a cerebral writer and, while he may not be everyone's cup of tea, it pays to stay with him.

Although somewhat obsessive about people's intelligence and whether they got "a first" or not, his insight into education -- "It is not important to be right, it doesn't matter at all if you're wrong: only keep an open mind" -- links well into the satire on the self-righteousness of zealots and the futility and self-contradiction of religious wars.

Mo, through the mouthpiece of Snooky, doesn't mince his words: he is equally scathing when attacking the "harridan" Thatcher or the "cretin" Reagan or when referring to "Yah Royal Heinous" Diana or vanity-published authors whose "misconstructions, infelicities and frank paroxysms of incorrect grammar could reduce us to helpless hysterics".

Snooky is a film critic and Mo makes use of this to show off his considerable film knowledge and apply it wittily to question staid concepts of East and West and to show that there are similarities in what are normally perceived as polarised cultures; for example Hollywood Westerns, Snooky illustrates, share many of the techniques of Eastern tales.

The narrative cranks up eventually when Snooky is caught in a drugs bust, and is blackmailed to infiltrate a pondok or religious school which acts as cover for jihadists planning to set up a caliphate in South East Asia.

On one of the islands they visit in pursuit of this aim, a perceptive Snooky observes that, while the authorities can scan their bags for bombs, they can't scan their heads for subversive ideas.

Snooky's handler in this enterprise is Victor, an old Oxford (Brecon in the novel) don and MI6 veteran.

The email interplay between him and Snooky is a good set piece with the spine-chilling refrain: Your message has been sent.

But the horror of mass destruction, so tellingly adumbrated in the book, is balanced by humorous interjections: "For God sake, Victor, you're going to kill an undergraduate one day". "Cull one would be the word," Victor replies; or Snoopy in a bookshop browsing -- "something cows and the intelligentsias do"; or George with whom Spooky liaised "was an economist (the modern witchcraft) and a canny Scot".

We glean some of Mo's prose mastery in his description of the half-blind Imam Umar, assistant to Shaykh, the jihadist leader: "His coffee-brown complexion set off the snowiness of his beard as if the latter was a cameo carving on shell but his nacreous orbs glowed in that dark face like the eyes of an alien, albeit a sociable one."

With its fresh and imaginative insights into our contemporary multicultural world, this book is of the moment and coupled with nuances and puns, Joycean at times in their occasional stream of consciousness, it could be fourth time lucky and the Booker year for this talented author.

James Lawless's poetry collection 'Rus in Urbe' has just been published by Doghouse and his novel 'Finding Penelope' is forthcoming from Indigo Dreams (UK). See

www.jameslawless.net

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