Turnaround Books, the publishers of Timothy Mo’s remarkable Pure, are revealed to operate from Unit 3, Olympia Trading Estate, Coburg Road, London N22. From this we may deduce that the publishing history of the three times Booker-shortlisted Anglo-Chinese novelist continues on its maverick way. Imagine if Mo had approached a conventional publisher with a proposition: this is a novel about jihad in south-east Asia, as seen through the eyes of a Muslim ladyboy.
Mo’s perversity and boldness apply in equal measure to his hero/heroine. In the person of Snooky, né Ahmed, the katoey, or ladyboy, from the Malay south who has moved to Bhuddist Bangkok, a film critic and an autodidact who loves pop culture, Mo has written the best and most plausible account of jihadi I have ever read. All recent western novels dealing with this important subject, including even the great John Updike’s 2006 Terrorist, have failed dismally to convey the sense of what it might be like to live fully within the bubble of historical grievance, victimhood and fundamentalist belief which is jihad. It may be a step too far for western writers, but not for Mo, who returned to his native Hong Kong in high dudgeon some years ago, and has immersed himself in south-east Asian language and customs to good effect.
Snooky is perhaps a little implausible in the plethora of attributes she has been given: multilingual lover of word-play, outrageous and fun-loving queen, telling commentator on the absurdities of her fellow jihadis, acute observer of the world about her and passionate aficionado of popular culture. For instance, she is reminded of Phil Spector when she is exhorted to read commentaries on the Holy Book. And when she sees Shaykh for the first time, the tall, impressive leader of the fundamentalist group, she thinks of a John Ford hero. Film references are frequent, though they sometimes seem to apply more to Mo’s generation than Snooky’s. But it is this richness and strangeness, both of language and of observation, that make the story unique.
Broadly speaking, the plot is that Snooky is beaten and blackmailed into infiltrating a group of would-be jihadis in her home region after she is arrested in a drugs raid. She is supposed to report to her Thai and British handlers on the activities of her comrades by means of a specially adapted computer.
Soon she is sent out on an inept training run to kill a few of the Bhuddist oppressors, a mission that ends badly, with the severed head of one blameless peasant. But her frivolous instincts, her erratic and playful despatches, and the tattoo low down her back (‘insert penis here’) lead to trouble. In the camp, which she describes as a pondok — a Malay word for a shed or a school — and her controller in England refers more loadedly to as a madrassah, she is forced to have the tattoo removed with battery acid. Her long hair is also cut, and she is made to take testosterone so that she can grow an appropriate beard. This is, in the most literal sense, the creation of a jihadi.
Her controller in England is Victor Veridian, a Smileyesque creation, fellow of Brecon College, Oxford. He is suitably Byzantine in his understanding of the world, and provides the rationale for hunting jihadis in south-east Asia. He has some rather arch conversations with another elderly don, that are more of a pastiche than Snooky’s passages, but at the same time they are true to a kind of spy literature. Along the way one is aware of the wealth of Mo’s influences. Shaykh’s reflections on the strategy required to achieve a caliphate are perfectly captured: at one and the same time deluded, chilling and comical.
Snooky’s progression to pureness of spirit comes with growing and chaste love for her mentors, a process thought of as brainwashing in the west. After an explosion in a club in Phuket, which kills a few hundred people, she is left feeling ‘alive and clean’. The miracle is that this seems for a former ladyboy — recently bearded — a wholly plausible journey towards the ultimate purity of her own suicide bombing.
And it is Timothy Mo’s boldness and sheer skill that make the improbable believable, moving and often funny.