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Timothy Mo Biography

(1950– ), The Monkey King, Sour Sweet, An Insular Possession, The Redundancy of Courage

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Anglo-Chinese novelist, born in Hong Kong, educated at Oxford. His fiction is traditionalist in form, reflecting a wide range of interests and extensive travels in the Far East and in America. Dickensian characterization and fine comic writing distinguishes his first novel, The Monkey King (1978), a study of a domestic tyrant, the wealthy Hong Kong merchant Mr Poon. Sour Sweet (1982) explores Chinese society in Britain during the 1960s, through the fortunes of Chen, an ambitious young restaurant owner, whose attempts to establish his own business involve him in the dubious affairs of one of the powerful Triad societies; Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay for the 1987 film version of the novel. The author's vivid realization of historical events is displayed in An Insular Possession (1986), set in 1833 in Canton, Portuguese Macao, and Hong Kong, drawing on contemporary newspaper accounts, letters, and diaries in its account of the Opium Wars. With a cast of memorable characters, the central story concerns two young Americans, Walter Eastman and Gideon Chase, who establish a weekly newspaper as an outlet for their campaigning journalism. The Redundancy of Courage (1991), narrated by the effete American-educated Chinese hotel owner Adolph Ng, describes the invasion of an island—clearly inspired by East Timor—in the Indonesian archipelago by a brutal military regime based on Suharto's, and the heroic resistance of the freedom fighters with whom Adolph takes refuge. Mo published Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (1995) himself, as a protest against the editorial and financial policies of the publishing establishment. After the epic scale of his most recent works, Brownout is a smaller, sharper performance; it is, however, equally distant from the domestic comedy of his early novels. Set in the Philippines, it adopts the perspectives of Asians and Westerners to analyse the vicissitudes of international politics and cultural clashes. Dominating the fictional proceedings is a conference in which a right-wing German academic ‘speaks his mind’ about race, religion, and culture: some races, including the Filipinos, are simply backward and inferior. Thus, Mo's novel has been read by some critics as a fine example of right-wing satire. But, in spite of its caricatures of white liberals and Third World intellectuals, its controversial portrayal of the German professor as a coprophiliac (faecal matter is a persistent metaphor throughout) who sexually exploits Asian prostitutes, invites a more complex reading of cultural and imperial domination.

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