Timothy Mo Essay - Critical Essays

Mo, Timothy


Timothy Mo 1950–-

Hong Kong-born English novelist, journalist, and critic.

The following entry provides an overview of Mo's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 46.

Mo is best known for his seriocomic novels revolving around the lives of expatriates. Drawing much of his material from his own English and Chinese heritage, Mo examines the problems immigrants encounter while adapting to foreign cultures. Born in Hong Kong, Mo has spent much of his life in England, and the image of the East presented in his work (like that of novelists James Clavell and Joseph Conrad to whom he is often compared) is one seen mainly through Western eyes. While his work dabbles in postmodern pastiche—An Insular Possession (1986), for example, borrows from the Victorian novel as well as from various kinds of historical “factual writing”—Mo's detailed and journalistically clear narrative style also draws comparisons to Graham Greene and Truman Capote. Mo's choice of subject matter and skillful language, adaptation of Chinese literary modes, and use of stereotypes and caricatures in his work results in novels that are both satirical and philosophical.

Biographical Information

Mo was born in Hong Kong in 1950. His parents, Peter Mo Wan Lung, a Cantonese solicitor, and Englishwoman Barbara Helena Falkingham, were divorced early in his life, and at the age of ten Mo moved to England with his mother. He majored in history at St. John's College, Oxford, and later completed an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Mo subsequently worked as a journalist, contributing articles and reviews to various publications including the New Statesman and the Times Educational Supplement. Mo has also contributed to the Boxing News and once fought as a bantamweight boxer. His first novel, The Monkey King (1978), earned Mo the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and Sour Sweet (1982), his second novel, was awarded the Hawthornden Prize from the Society of Authors in 1982. Sour Sweet was also nominated for a Whitbread award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize—as were An Insular Possession and The Redundancy of Courage (1991), Mo’s third and fourth books. With his fifth novel, the controversial Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (1995), Mo rejected established publishers and substantial, well-publicized advances, and opted instead for self-publication.

Major Works

The Monkey King, set in Hong Kong in the 1950s and based on folk tales of the magical Monkey King and its Buddhist master, explores the relationship between traditional Chinese culture and contemporary Western social values. Although Mo writes in English and presents a Western perspective, his viewpoint is one based on an intimate understanding of the East. Insight into Eastern culture also distinguishes Sour Sweet, a story about the Chens, a Chinese family living in England who are caught between the Chinese past and the British present. The story was adapted for film in 1989 with a screenplay written by novelist Ian McEwan. In An Insular Possession, Mo provides a historical backdrop to varying cultural identities and examines the colonial relations and political structures spawned by the British exploitation of the East. While it relies on fictionalized “documents” of the past, such as photographs, paintings, stylistic and formal features of the Victorian novel, as well as the stilted English spoken by the Chinese characters, the novel also borrows from Chinese literary modes with a circular, ring-like approach to storytelling. An Insular Possession describes Hong Kong in the nineteenth century and focuses on the opium trade, while a parallel story delineates the evolution of photography through a portrayal of real-life photographer Walter Eastman. An Insular Possession has been compared to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, as both novels share the premise that the dividing line between fiction and history is a thin and permeable one. The Redundancy of Courage pursues postcolonial issues in a story about a fictional island, Danu. Mo weaves factual events from the Indonesian occupation of East Timor in 1975 and the resulting violence and upheaval into his account. Danu-born and Canadian-educated character Adolph Ng recounts the invasion of Danu and the subsequent struggle for survival and freedom. Ng grapples with issues of cultural identity, as do most of Mo's central characters. Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is set in the Philippines in the fictional town of Gobernador de Leon and covers the story of the Dragons Centre and the international figures who are attending its inaugural conference. Similar in theme to Mo's other novels, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard explores ideas about cultural identity, the contrasts between Eastern and Western thought, and colonial and post-colonial mindsets.

Critical Reception

A satirist as well as a historiographer, Mo is concerned with ideas, and it is in this realm that he is appreciated. Critics usually find him more successful at raising issues than presenting characters in technically impeccable fiction. Many critics appreciate Mo's perceptive analyses of cultural assumptions and his use of non-Western modes of storytelling. Mo's first novel, The Monkey King, is acknowledged as a convincing depiction of the Chinese world which combined humor and insight. Critics found Mo's Sour Sweet equally convincing in its portrayal of the Chinese populace of London. Mo's training in history and his fascination with culture are effectively combined in An Insular Possession, his most well-received work, which, according to Elaine Yee Lin Ho, “resonates of Virgil's epic on the origins of Rome.” The postmodern and postcolonial tendencies evidenced in this tale prompted several critics to conclude that Mo's ideas often take precedence over his characterizations. Ian Buruma writes that “the problem for this postmodern novel … is that it rarely, if ever, gets beyond cleverness. … [Mo] is so cerebral, so concerned with style, that he cuts his work off from passion, without which art has no life.” It is widely held, nonetheless, that An Insular Possession contains, in the words of Ho, a “subliminal critique of historiography,” since it “exposes the constructed or fictional nature of history.” Mo's work typically addresses aspects of history and culture, and his novels naturally often touch upon the theme of colonial oppression. This issue is dealt with most directly in The Redundancy of Courage, which is described by Martin Fletcher as “an uncomfortable book that raises ugly truths.” Disagreement surrounding Mo's fiction reached its apex with Brownout On Breadfruit Boulevard due principally to the inclusion of objectionable subject matter such as descriptions of bodily excrement and passages of explicit violence. Despite objections to these elements in the book, overall, critics laud Mo for his skill as a satirist and for his use of vivid language.

Principal Works

The Monkey King (novel) 1978

Sour Sweet (novel) 1982

An Insular Possession (novel) 1986

The Redundancy of Courage (novel) 1991

Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (novel) 1995


D. J. Enright (review date 9 May 1986)

SOURCE: “Capturing the China Trade,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4336, May 9, 1986, p. 498.

[In the following review of An Insular Possession, Enright provides an outline of the historical facts in Mo's narrative and assesses Mo's fictional rendition.]

An Insular Possession is a historical novel of so traditional a kind as to seem startlingly original. The history concerns British trade with China and the so-called Opium War of 1839–42, embracing the seizure of Hong Kong by Britain in 1841. China was convinced that Westerners needed her rhubarb to cure the constipation characteristic of all barbarian bowels, but she didn't particularly want cotton in exchange. The West was after China's silver, as well as her tea, and the solution was to turn her into a society of consumers, or addicts, situated at a safe distance from home. Still a sore point with the Chinese, that bizarre war is virtually forgotten by us, partly because in retrospect it is both shameful and absurd, not to say indefensible, although at the time the sale of Indian opium, by force and by guile, was commonly considered absolutely essential to the Empire. When the trade ceased, Britain and its Empire continued to exist: essentials are rarely what they profess to be.

The first pages of the novel sketch the setting: the Pearl River, with its cargo of dead female babies, of barges and bandits, and Canton itself, already “an ancient place with a dubious and blood-stained past”, and a cosmopolitan city, blessed with a mosque and the tomb of one of the Prophet’s uncles, and also the Factories or trading posts of the East India Company, the “Honourable Company”. Thereafter we meet three of the main characters, Harry O’Rourke, the local painter, a Dickensian creation with a red bulbous nose and “plenilunar buttocks”, and the two young Americans, Walter Eastman and Gideon Chase, at present employees of the American house of Meridian and Co, which trades furs, sandalwood and birds’ nests in exchange for silk, porcelain, lacquer and tea, eschewing the “fabulously profitable traffic” in what is quaintly called “drug”.

Eastman is excitable, choleric and witty; Chase is gentle and serious-minded, even to the point of learning the Chinese language surreptitiously from one Master Ow, a disaffected mandarin with a taste for cherry brandy. Chase will later achieve great things as an interpreter to high figures of state and as a professor of Chinese in numerous universities. Or so—it is practically impossible to distinguish between fact and fabrication—an appendix informs us.

Timothy Mo’s primary allegiance is to history, to the past experienced as though it were the present, and hence he needs to make his characters lifelike and engaging. And so they are. To some extent they come from stock, not very deeply plumbed but representative: the boisterous Company clerk, younger son of a good but impecunious family; the cynical yet soft-hearted old hand; the stern pragmatic merchant; the bluff naval officer; the harassed envoy from London; the proper young lady from Boston, more bored than fascinated; the comical native servant. This suits the author’s aims, and one wouldn’t expect to find a Lucky Jim at the court of His Celestial Majesty or a Leopold Bloom on the Select Committee of Supercargoes.

The social life of expatriate Westerners is entertainingly documented. For instance, duck-shoots and boating parties; the smuggling into bachelor quarters of native prostitutes (an activity mentioned but not enacted); outdoor sketching; a visit to The Barber of Seville performed by a touring Italian company; a ball with fireworks to celebrate the American Fourth of July; and amateur dramatics, that perennial pastime of exiles: here a production of The Rivals, with O’Rourke in the part of Mrs Malaprop and with the customary prima donnas and injured feelings.

The novel is rather low on romantic interest, apart from Eastman’s unsuitable love for his boss’s niece, promptly quashed by her heavily Victorian uncle; yet we shall hardly reproach Mo for passing light-heartedly over the goings-on in a “flower-boat” managed by a fat eunuch under the protection of the Brotherhood of Rovers of Rivers and Lakes. Humorous touches abound. Two Americans, captured by a “Tartar general,” are hard pressed to convince him of their nationality: he contends that if they are not English then they should speak a different language and wear different clothes. The mandarins translate the name of Lord Napier, briefly Superintendent of British Trade on the dissolution of the Honourable Company’s monopoly in China, in such a way as to suggest “Laboriously Vile”. Commissioner Lin, dispatched by the Emperor to put down the trade in opium, has need of the services of the American missionary hospital in Canton but protocol forbids him to visit it in person. He sends a discreet intermediary who describes the symptoms: Dr Parker diagnoses a hernia and furnishes a truss of the approximate dimensions. This story, taken from the contemporary Chinese Repository, is related in Arthur Waley’s The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes.

Eastman is revolted by the “noxious traffic” in opium, paradoxically carried on by the nation that led the way in suppressing the traffic in slaves, and whose commercial representatives piously argue that free trade is “hallowed work” which will bring backward China into intercourse not only with the rest of mankind but also with “our Maker”. When Meridian and Co decide to join in this secure and lucrative trade on the grounds that moral misgivings must yield to the claims of their investors, Eastman and Chase resign, the former to found an anti-opium newspaper, the latter to help him and to act as interpreter to the British Plenipotentiary, Captain Elliott, in his dealings with the Chinese...

(The entire section is 2450 words.)

Dick Wilson (review date 18 September 1986)

SOURCE: “On the Edge of History,” in Far Eastern Economic Review, September 18, 1986, pp. 60-61.

[In the following review, Wilson describes the stylistic qualities of Mo’s prose in An Insular Possessionwhile also presenting an account of the novel's plot and setting.]

Timothy Mo’s long-awaited new novel, five years in the making, begins with a lyrical description of the Pearl River and the city of Canton which will demand inclusion in any future treasury of modern English prose. This is Mo at his best, using language as a fluent conveyor of all the eye can see, the ear can hear, the mind can imagine—language lean yet poetic, down-to-earth yet conscious...

(The entire section is 722 words.)

Robin W. Winks (review date 19 April 1987)

SOURCE: “Truth Opium and Muddy Waters,” in New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, p. 2.

[In the following review, Winks attempts to identify Mo's purpose and achievement in An Insular Possession.]

Timothy Mo has sent his craft up a crowded river. A few years ago C. Mary Turnball, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, charted the many novels set in Hong Kong and found well over a hundred. Most, she thought, were of little account, though the public obviously thought differently of the panoramas offered by James Clavell, whose Tai-Pan, published in 1966, sprawls across much the same riverscape as Mr. Mo’s remarkable effort, An Insular...

(The entire section is 1322 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 26 April 1987)

SOURCE: “Timothy Mo's Asian Studies,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XVII, No. 17, April 26, 1987.

[In the following review, Yardley comments on Mo’s narrative skills and characterizes the author's shortcomings.]

The ways of book publishing being as they are, the immensely gifted young British writer Timothy Mo made his American debut two years ago not with his first novel but his second: Sour Sweet, an irresistible book about a Chinese family living in London and learning—among many other things—how to cope with the alien Western culture. Sour Sweet was enthusiastically reviewed in this country, acquired a small but ardent readership, and...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)

Ian Buruma (review date 11 May 1987)

SOURCE: “China Syndrome,” in The New Republic, Vol. 196, No. 19, May 11, 1987, pp. 39-41.

[In the following review, Buruma discusses the metaphorical motifs and characteristic features of Mo's style in An Insular Possession.]

What will happen after 1997? This is the first thing people ask when one tells them that one lives in Hong Kong. It is not the sort of question posed about any other place. Who knows what will happen in 1997 in New York, Delhi, or Tokyo? But in no other place is the future tied to a specific date, to a formal agreement that a modern capitalist colony will be handed over to a troubled Communist state. Nor can one think of any other major city...

(The entire section is 1643 words.)

Gayle Feldman (review date 5 July 1987)

SOURCE: Review of The Monkey King in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 5, 1987, p. 11.

[In the following review, Feldman looks at the literary antecedent of The Monkey King and discusses the intricacies of the novel.]

One of China's most famous and best-loved novels, the 16th-Century Journey to the West, recounts the larger-than-life, picaresque adventures of the legendary Monkey King as he wends his way toward enlightenment via heaven, hell and all manner of earthly places in between. Timothy Mo, the Oxford-educated son of an English mother and Cantonese father who now lives and writes in London, let his imagination journey eastward to 1950s...

(The entire section is 1120 words.)

Feroza Jussawalla (essay date Winter 1988)

SOURCE: Review of An Insular Possession, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 1, Winter 1988, p. 181.

[In the following review, Jussawalla discusses Mo's skills and shortcomings as a writer as evidenced in An Insular Possession.]

Timothy Mo’s novel An Insular Possession is a rather slow-moving account of British colonizers in the Far East—so slow-moving that it took me three concerted efforts to finish the book. Each time the major characters sit down to an elaborate meal, it is impossible to summon the courage to go on reading. The interminable meals mark unnecessary breaking points in the narrative, as the reader plods through “cold buffets of...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

John Rothfolk (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Confucianism in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet,” in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, 1989, pp. 49-64.

[In the following essay, Rothfolk explores the philosophical underpinnings and actions of Mo's characters in Sour Sweet.]

Timothy Mo’s three novels are all concerned with social philosophy, specifically with the clash between traditional Chinese and contemporary Western social values and with suggestions for resolution or synthesis in the emerging global crosspollination of cultures. Born of an English mother and Cantonese father, raised in Hong Kong and working as a journalist in London, Mr. Mo knows the conflicts from...

(The entire section is 7437 words.)

Martin Fletcher (review date 3 May 1991)

SOURCE: “State of Seige,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 4, No. 149, May 3, 1991, p. 36.

[In the following review of The Redundancy of Courage, Fletcher examines details of the novel's plot and assesses Mo's treatment of the theme of courage in the face of oppression.]

Timothy Mo doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A writer of the highest professional standards who limbered up for the long distance of a novelist’s career by writing for Boxing News, he knows his own worth. Aside from his well-documented high advance in Britain for The Redundancy of Courage, he withdrew his novel from the US market when publishers there failed to offer enough...

(The entire section is 606 words.)

Andrew Billen (review date 9 May 1991)

SOURCE: “The Ambiguity of Heroism,” in The London Review of Books, Vol. 13, May 9, 1991, p. 24.

[In the following review, Billen focuses on the tone and theme of The Redundancy of Courage.]

The title of Timothy Mo’s fourth novel both captures its sardonic tone and crystallises the question it asks. If death refuses to be out-stared, is bravery in its face an irrelevance? The Redundancy of Courage asks the same question about heroism as Lord Jim, whose location it recalls, and The Red Badge of Courage, whose title it modifies. It refuses to give a straight answer. It redirects the question at the reader.

Mo’s narrator is...

(The entire section is 344 words.)

Jonathan Friedland (review date 30 May 1991)

SOURCE: “An Insular Occupation,” in Far East Economic Review, Vol. 151, No. 14, May 30, 1991, p. 59.

[In the following review, Friedland identifies the sources for Mo’s material in The Redundancy of Courage and comments on the author’s treatment of such.]

Adolph Ng, the protagonist of Timothy Mo’s new novel [The Redundancy of Courage], is a fish out of water, doubly so. He is Chinese and gay. He lives in a wretched backwater called Danu, a former Portuguese territory “north of Australia” that has been brutally occupied by the neighbouring “malais.” Through inexorable fate Ng, the proprietor of the only good hotel in town, becomes a...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Claire Messud (review date 23 May 1993)

SOURCE: Review of The Monkey King, in Guardian Weekly, Vol. 148, No. 20, May 23, 1993, p. 29.

[In the following review, Messud provides a concise description of Mo’s first novel, The Monkey King.]

Here is a welcome re-issue of Timothy Mo’s first, vastly entertaining and accomplished novel, first published in 1978 and the recipient of the Geoffrey Faber Prize. It concerns the adventures of Wallace Nolasco, a native of Macau who considers himself Portuguese—albeit “a courtesy title”—and deems the Chinese an “arrogant and devious” race. Never mind that after generations of inter-marriage he is himself virtually indistinguishable from the people he...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

Elaine Yee Lin Ho (essay date July 1994)

SOURCE: “How Not to Write History: Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession,” in Ariel, Vol. 25, No. 3, July 1994, pp. 51-65.

[In the following essay, Ho examines the strategies adopted by Mo in his presentation of history in An Insular Possession.]

An Insular Possession (1986), Timothy Mo’s third novel, represents a deliberate turning away from the more restricted domestic chronicles of his first two novels, The Monkey King (1978) and Sour Sweet (1982). Its subject matter, Sino-British conflict that led to the founding of Hong Kong as a city port by British imperialist forces in the Far East in the nineteenth century, is epical in scope....

(The entire section is 5535 words.)

Nicholas Clee (review date 7 April 1995)

SOURCE: “Spicy and Thick,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4801, April 7, 1995, p. 26.

[In the following review, Clee comments on the thematic motifs in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard.]

Timothy Mo’s literary career has drifted up a creek. He started out with two critically acclaimed novels, The Monkey King (1978) and Sour Sweet (1982); the latter, a fresh and arresting portrait of the Chinese community in London, appeared on the Booker Prize shortlist and was made into a film. An Insular Possession (1986), for which he had changed publisher from Deutsch to Chatto for an advance that was lower than a rival offer, was also a Booker...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)

D. J. Taylor (review date 15 April 1995)

SOURCE: “Near-Perfect Right-Wing Art,” in The Spectator, Vol. 274, No. 8701, April 15, 1995, p. 36.

[In the following review of Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, Taylor discusses the narrative structure and political theme of the novel.]

The publishing history of Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard looks like a sad case of Martin Amis in reverse. Timothy Mo, the author of four highly-praised novels, three of them shortlisted for the Booker Prize, approaches selected publishers with the manuscript of his new work and, let us say, a certain sum of money in mind. As one, the publishers decline to match these expectations (the top bid is supposed to have...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Richard Tyrrell (review date 7 May 1995)

SOURCE: “Here Be Many Dragons,” in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 152, No. 19, May 7, 1995, p. 28.

[In the following review, Tyrrell provides a succinct account of the satirical quality in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard.]

Timothy Mo’s first novel, Sour Sweet, a fine satire about a Hong Kong family, introduced us to the rich Poons, lunching on three fried eggs, their amahs sleeping in the kitchen, spittoons in each room, and their every word part of the Chinese politics of status or “face”. Underneath Mo’s wit and compact narration was a telling critique of a claustrophobic Chinese society. It was a world that Mo, born of Cantonese and English...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 11 May 1995)

SOURCE: “Doing It His Way,” in The London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 9, May 11, 1995, p. 22.

[In the following review, Mars-Jones complains of the stylistic and technical flaws in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard.]

Was it Randall Jarrell who defined a novel as a long piece of prose fiction with something wrong with it? By that yardstick, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is a novel thousands of times over. Timothy Mo has decided to go solo with this book, and has set up his own press for the purpose. This is not vanity publishing as that phrase is normally understood (Mo has in the past made money for himself and his publishers) but vanity certainly seems...

(The entire section is 1595 words.)

Boyd Tonkin (review date 12 May 1995)

SOURCE: “Cash and le Carré,” in New Statesman and Society, May 12, 1995, p. 41.

[In the following review, Tonkin briefly compares Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard with John le Carré’s Our Game.]

Timothy Mo and John le Carré have both written novels that pit conscience against corruption in a lawless post-imperial world, “without faith or anti-faith”. Look at how these two books have been published, though, and you see a curious mirror-effect. Both authors have behaved in ways that flatly contradict their novels’ drift. Mo the sneering fatalist has acted like a hero; while Le Carré the knightly champion of rights has hitched his name to big-power...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

John McLeod (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Living In-Between: Interstitial Spaces of Possibility in Timothy Mo's Sour Sweet,” in Just Postmodernism, Rodopi, 1997, pp. 107-128.

[In the following essay, McLeod examines Mo’s Sour Sweet in terms of the postmodern and postcolonial theories of Homi K. Bhabha.]

Exploring the relationship between postmodernism and postcolonialism in the context of literary criticism is almost like being party to a particularly messy divorce. These erstwhile theoretical bedfellows have, in the last ten years, drifted further and further apart. Much of what each might offer the other has been lost beneath a growing volume of accusation, hostility and mutual...

(The entire section is 6295 words.)