Last summer, I met up with a close childhood friend who has lived abroad for many years. Heading to the pub, I was surprised to find myself nervous at the prospect of meeting him again after so many years. What if we’d changed, grown apart? What if we no longer had anything to talk about? Much the same feeling assailed me as I sat down to read Timothy Mo’s latest novel, Pure. Mo and I have history, you see. He was the subject of my doctoral thesis, I knew his earlier works inside out. But that was then. I’m no longer that student of English. And Pure is Mo’s first novel in more than a decade. What if…?
“Call me a Believer with a Blackberry, the Mohammedan with the Mac” begins the novel’s principal narrator, Snooky, as if to assuage my fears; the serious subject matter couched in irreverent language, the sparkling syntax, the in-your-face first person narration – years of awkward silence washed away in a dozen words. Snooky is a Thai katoey (a ladyboy to you and I) and a Bangkok film critic who is coerced into enrolling in the jihad as a relunctant spy for the West. A less likely jihadist you would struggle to find – one of the first acts she endures in the religious school (pondok) is to have her ‘insert penis here’ tattoo removed (with battery acid) from her lower back, an ordeal she is able to endure in large part thanks to the fact that, despite the strictures of the pondok, she seems perfectly able to maintain her quite prodigious drug consumption. And yet, despite her avowed aim to ‘put the fun into fundamentalism’, as the novel progresses, lines are blurred, perhaps predictably, between good and bad, modern and traditional, pure and impure. Where, we begin to wonder, do Snooky’s true sympathies lie?
If all of this sounds like the stuff of the classic espionage novel then that is, in part at least, no false impression. Another of the narrators, Oxbridge don and MI6 spymaster Victor Veridian, might have stepped right out of the pages of a John le Carré novel, whilst the jihad itself is given a more serious voice through the narrative of Shaykh, the leader of the pondok than Snooky can offer. The multiple narrators allow Mo to demonstrate his virtuosity with voice and each convinces; yet such is the dazzling nature of Snooky’s narrative that all the others appear pale by comparison and, especially as the novel progresses, become somewhat of an irksome diversion from the main event.
Despite the subject matter, Pure should not really be thought of as an espionage novel. Mo has always written about the clash (or perhaps imbrication is a better word) of cultures, ideas and identities, usually from the margins, and this novel is no different. Contemporary Western culture penetrates even this particular corner of the deeply conservative Islamic jihad. There is a laugh-out-loud moment when Snooky compares the canteen at an international terrorist training camp in the Philippines to the intergalactic bar in Star Wars. Rather more macabre are the series of gruesome propaganda videos produced by Snooky, in which hostages compete for their lives in outlandish versions of familiar Western TV game shows (think Big Brotherhood House or Blind Hate). The Empire strikes back indeed.
Ever the gutsy writer, perhaps only Mo would have the audacity to explore the jihad in South-East Asia through the eyes of a drug-addled, thoroughly Westernised Thai transvestite. But explore it he does, and alongside the brio and the humour are serious and very contemporary observations, and genuinely moving episodes laced with pathos. Pure is not perfect, but it is pure Mo. Welcome back old friend. You haven’t changed a bit.