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.
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.
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.
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.