Rey, Castro or Sugar (the fact that he has a plethora of names is significant in itself) is a member of the Philippine underclass, the illegitimate son of a prostitute and an African American serviceman. We follow him from his wretched childhood in a Philippine slum, his membership of a street gang, his rescue and education at the hands of the Jesuits; his enrollment in college to study law and his developing talent for basketball. Rey is possessed of a hugely powerful physique, which makes him ideal for basketball, a game he says the Filipinos had no sane reason to take up. How could a short, wiry –fathers and mentors let me not be mealy mouthed – teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy, chronically malnourished, genetically-disadvantaged South-East Asian folk ever have chosen a less appropriate endeavor by which to be measured? He also has curiosity and a passion for reading, and forms a bond of intellectual friendship with one of the Fathers. Through his unwilling involvement in a crime he is forced into exile to escape the law; we follow his adventures as a chauffeur to a British expat family in Hong Kong, a travel-guide cum baby-sitter in Thailand; an indentured construction labourer in a fictional country on the Arabian peninsula, probably a composite of Kuwait, Saudi, Qatar or another of those appalling shitholes, a bodyguard on a business trip to Mumbai; a layabout in England, a layabout in Cuba, a long spell as a seaman on container ships on the high seas – the engine room of globalization - and after a brief spell in America, home again to the Philippines. Everywhere he goes in the underdeveloped world he is, as he says, a member of the international underclass who were the slaves of our century. And everywhere he goes he experiences himself as the outsider, the renegade, by virtue of the colour of his skin, his size and ability to handle himself, his intelligence and gift for observation, his peaceable temperament in the face of open hostility.
It’s through certain repeated images that Mo explores his themes of globalization, identity and aculturalisation. The most powerful appears in the first paragraph: the photographic negative. Isn’t the negative always more intriguing than the print? At one stage he encounters a group of Filipino albinos, at another, a group of coral divers, whose hair has been bleached and whose backs have been burnt black by the sun they too looked like the precursors of a photograph, or shadow relics of a nuclear blast. This is the flipside of globalization, the negative to the print. Another image is the halo, a type of desert, a many hued and multi-textured confection of ice-cream, cereals, neon syrups, crystalized fruits, frosty shavings, leguminous preserves and bloated pulses that you can find in different names all over South Asia. Images of other kinds of composites abound. Rey makes friends with a master huntsman, and he shows Rey his prize possession: a composite bow made of leather on one side and horn on the other: you got antagonistic forces working together just for you! It gets its power from putting together a whole assembly of parts that ain’t worth diddly on their own. Rey himself is both a negative and a halo.
It’s significant that the protagonist of the novel is Filipino, because that country is at once the most obvious victim of globalization, and at the same time a potent symbol of racial, religious and linguistic diversity. Rey, in his encounters with the wide array of people he meets, seems to be saying the real strength of globalization is in the diversity with unity it can bring. He recognizes that people are formed as much by their context as by their essence. He learns from the Jesuits how to decode things he doesn’t at first understand from their context, and everyone he meets has been taken out of their context and placed in a new one. In such a decontextualized world, all values become relative: Commander Smith’s virtues, those absolutes I had been disposed to worship, I was starting to see as relatives, as part of my own Philippine family of vices. They were only successful in their own context, in a better society.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the linguistic energy of the novel, and this is its chief strength and originality. There are frequent puns (the word halo is tremendously fruitful in this regard) and meditations on language. I reckon Philipino would look a whole lot better than Filipino, a spelling demeaning in itself, while sounding just the same. I mean you’ve got Philosophy, Philology, Physiology (and I admit, Phlegm) as against Fuck, Fart and Fool. Rey tells his story himself, infusing his language with Filipino street slang in Cebuano, Visayan, Tagalog, themselves types of bastardised Spanish, one of the lingua francas of the developing world. He can veer from high literary English to curses and imprecations in Taglish (or Bislish if you like), and he knowingly and wittily references high European culture: happy ships were happy in different ways, di ba, but unhappy ships were unhappy in different ways, siguro. He also uses words like cunctatory (yes, I had to look it up too), and has read Dickens, Haklyutt, Hobbes, and the novel has obvious nods to Smollett and Conrad.
The great danger of globalisation, culturally, is that it imposes a ghastly kind of uniformity on everything, where everyone shares the values of the dominant culture, and smaller cultures are absorbed into what the cultural theorist Victor Segalen called the beige paste of entropy. You can see this process happening in the critical response to the novel. British critics accused Mo of peddling in stereotypes, but Mo and his alter ego Rey recognize that stereotypes play an important part in understanding how people operate out of their context: they work as a convenience, a first impression, as long as one is prepared to change ones mind on further acquaintance with reality. The novel preempts those critics who are more concerned with virtue-signaling their awareness of the stereotypes of racial prejudice than in squarely facing the fact that there does exist racial difference, and that cultures are relatively superior or inferior. I also believe the degree to which you discern or suspect prejudice against yourself or your kind is the measure of the prejudice in yourself. Those who inveigh the most vehemently are those who hate the most. An early but central scene involves a gang rape and murder, and Mo came under a lot of criticism for including this scene. But those who criticise the work for this are only shooting the messenger. Mo is describing the reality of the world that exists outside the context of the comfortable world of the literary critic or Western reader. In the East the placid poor lived in terror of the violent rich. In the West the rich lived in terror of the criminal poor. Unlike the critics, he is not mealy-mouthed about that reality. Unlike them he does not make the mistake of assuming that other parts of the world share the same values, and does not fall victim to the stultifying myth of cultural uniformity.
Mo has fallen off the radar a bit since his early high visibility with the Booker Prize nominated The Monkey King, Sour Sweet and his excellent historical novel about Hong Kong An Insular Possession, although rumours that he is ‘missing’ are surely exaggerated (the same exaggeration that Thomas Pynchon is a ‘recluse’). It’s just that he’s not attending literary cocktail parties in London. He reportedly turned down an advance from Random House in the mid 90s, not because it wasn’t big enough, as it has been unkindly suggested, but because one assumes he was chafing under the kind of editorial control that results in the usual, careful, anodyne, taupe prose that graduates of creative writing programs produce nowadays. By starting his own imprint, and publishing this work under it, Mo has escaped this kind of editorial interference, thankfully. It’s hard to believe that a novel of this linguistic scope, ambition and brilliance, and the taboo-breaking scenes of sex and violence that it contains would be accepted by one of the mainstream houses today. And yet there is nothing amateurish or ‘vanity published’ about this highly accomplished and finely-wrought novel. The only drawback is that by removing himself from the publishing industry in this way his novels have not had the coverage and distribution that would bring them to a wider readership, which is a tremendous shame, as this work in particular, 20 years after it first appeared, has a lot to teach complacent Western readers about the world outside their purview. With his kind of halo prose, and by moving the bildungsroman and picaresque away from the centres of tradition to marginal characters and the post-colonial world – the new centre, Mo has infused the English language and the English novel with new vigour and vitality.