Migrancy and the Picaresque in Timothy Mo’s Renegade or Halo2
Timothy Mo is often mentioned in the same breath as Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. All three novelists are seen as outstanding instances of immigrant writers who have reinvigorated British fiction with their trans-national outlook and alt
ernative uses of English. Rushdie became famous early in his career, winning the Booker Prize for his second novel, Midnight's Children (1981) and Ishiguro did the same with his third novel, The Remains of the Day (1989) the movie of which brought his name and work to the attention of an international readership. Timothy Mo on the other hand has been nominated for the Booker Prize on three occasions but passed over in favor of novelists less controversial and more mainstream in their use of the genre. No consensus has been reached on which if any of his novels constitutes his masterpiece, and his decision to publish his fifth and sixth novels under his own imprint (Paddleless Press) has further limited his accessibility. Yet he remains a formidable talent whose work deserves more recognition than it has received to date, especially outside Britain and Hong Kong where he has received most notice. He is a truly international writer. Five of his six books are set in South East Asia.
What is most characteristic of Mo's fiction is his rejection of plot-driven narrative, especially after his first two novels, and his highly individual response to the dilemma of postcolonialism, a response which involves the seemingly indiscriminate use of politically incorrect stereotypes and a condemnation of identity dependent on membership in an ethnic group or "tribe" as he calls it. This essay attempts to show the connection between literary mode (the minimally plotted narrative) and thematic concern (identity apart from the tribe). Although I will be drawing on all six of his novels to date, I will concentrate on his sixth novel, Renegade or Halo2 (1999), the book he says he likes best of all his work (as do I).
Critics began complaining of Mo's alleged inability to construct a plot-driven structure for his books with the appearance of his third novel, An Insular Possession (1987). This novel uses a collage of rival newspaper reports, letters, journals, playbills, court transcripts and both fictional and factual biographies to narrate a fictional history of Britain's seizure of Hong Kong from the Chinese. Reviewers repeatedly charged that this ambitious novel "disdains old-fashioned narrative" (Scott 25), "never acquires narrative strength" (Yardley X3), "failed as a narrative" (Battersby 14), and so on. Since then it has become commonplace for reviewers to assert that "[p]lot has never exactly been Mo's strongest point" (McRae 33), or that "[i]t is a feature of Mo's fiction that he doesn't invest much in plot" (Sutherland 12). This criticism has been articulated most clearly by Elaine Yee Hin Ho in her book-length study of Mo’s work. In her chapter on Renegade or Halo2 she charges that the narrator/protagonist's failure to show any interior development leaves him "cut loose from any structure of causality, historical or psychological." Convinced that "causality is a vital resource for change and variation," Ho concludes that "its displacement leads to repetitiousness and a thinning and flattening of the first-person voice" (135). Ho's reaction is the more surprising seeing that she acknowledges Mo's self-conscious cultivation of the picaresque genre in his later fiction. Discussing Renegade, she claims that "Castro [the protagonist] appears both true to the picaro type and also under-performed." By "under-performed" she means that Castro shows no "inner transformation" (134). This reveals a significant misinterpretation of the picaresque convention. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the picaresque novel is that in most examples of the genre the picaro “is not so much a complete individual personality whose actual life experiences are significant in themselves as a literary convention for the presentation of a variety of satiric observations and comic episodes” (Watt 98). Ho is looking for a form of psychological realism and development in an instance of a genre that deliberately eschews it.
Controversy has and still does rage over how to define the picaresque novel.1 Since the 1950s scholars of the Spanish origins of the genre have tended to see the picaresque novel as the response of compulsorily converted Jews (conversos) to their disempowered position in Spanish society at the time of Phillip II.2 The picaro or low-life rogue reflected the disenfranchised position of the converso, a “member of a caste subject to intense scorn and suspicion, forced into a marginal position within his world, and reacting to persecution in a number of characteristic ways, among them cultivation of irony” (Blackburn 9). The conversos faced a situation that has striking resemblances to that confronting Mo’s nationally displaced protagonist-narrators: “the disintegration of traditional value systems, the rise of bourgeois ideology, and the increasing difficulty of reconciling aspirations for upward mobility with psychological needs for security and self-respect in a hostile, dehumanizing society” (Bjornson 19). In “Toward a Definition of the Picaresque” Claudio Guillén has described the original Spanish picaro as an “insular, isolated being” “obliged to fend for himself [ . . .] in an environment for which he is not prepared” (79). Castro, the fugitive protagonist of Renegade, occupies a similar position as an underdog “trying to get in from the cold” (190). As such he shares with Defoe’s later picaresque protagonists the “struggle for survival in a marginal situation” (Paulson 44).
The picaro is both an observer of life from the underside and an ironic commentator on and satirist of what he observes, particularly of the upper classes. In Monteser’s words, “the picaresque novel was one long verbal castigation of society,” but its principal purpose was more entertainment than social satire (15-16). Mo similarly uses his picaresque protagonists as dramatic instruments for entertainingly commenting on and exposing the failings and hypocrisies of a wide range of contemporary societies, both Occidental and Oriental, especially their ruling classes. Mo has said that he is not even acquainted with the picaresque novel of the Siglo de Oro. But at the age of nine he came across Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605, 1615) which he “absolutely loved,” and in his teens he read Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751). Smollett was deeply steeped in the tradition of the picaresque, having translated Le Sage’s Gil Blas in 1749 and Don Quixote in 1755. Mo’s claim that he “obviously knew what a picaresque novel was” refers then to the European adaptation of the Spanish original (Mo, Letters). At the same time Mo’s choice of the picaresque is far from unique; the very flexibility of the genre has attracted some of the twentieth century’s great novelists. Frequently cited instances include Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Sveik, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.
Ho is not the only critic to recognize Mo's move to a picaresque mode. For instance Cole Moreton reviewing Renegade for the Independent talks of the novel's evocation of "the picaresque of Moll Flanders" while complaining that it "goes everywhere but nowhere" (12). Martyn Bedford reviewing Renegade for the New Statesman made a similarly disparaging reference to the genre, writing that the novel had "the rambling framework of the picaresque" (40). Why is there such a widespread bias against the picaresque when its very formlessness, use of a rogue for hero (hence the first half of the title, Renegade), and its satire of social mores would appear to offer a ready made vehicle for a postcolonial representation of the displaced immigrant? Although the degree of structure in the picaresque narrative varies, many critics think of it as a panoramic rather than an orderly vertical structure. This use of a loosely structured narrative is one of the most characteristic features of the picaresque novel. So, according to Wilbur Cross, “Smollett’s novels are strings of adventure and personal histories, and it is not quite clear to the reader why they might not be shuffled into any other succession than the one they have assumed” (64). Mo himself has declared his antagonism towards good forms--plot-driven narratives: "When you try to lead your characters to plot it always goes wrong. You just let them meander along" (“Fighter Ready” 25). In An Insular Possession Mo takes the opportunity to comment on the alternative mode to the teleologically and plot-driven narrative. Gideon Chase, one of the book’s two American protagonists, writes in the local newspaper that he and his friend have started publishing a brief essay on the distinction between the Western and Chinese novel forms:
. . . the Western novel (American, British, French German) unfolds itself along a path which to all practical intents and purposes is linear. . . It may ramble, but essentially it proceeds along a course of cause and effects, each contributing to the movement of the whole. [. . .] The native novel, by way of contrast, moves in a path which is altogether circular. It is made up of separate episodes, pretty generally of chapter length, which may refer only unto themselves and be joined by the loosest of threads. (316)
Here Mo is educating his implied reader in how to respond to his own picaresque/Chinese mode of narration. All of his last four novels contain episodes that appear linked to the main plot solely because they happen to a picaresque-like protagonist. All advance more by chronological than teleological means, although teleology is not wholly absent from any of them.
Mo's definition of the Chinese novel is remarkably similar to that of the picaresque, down to the Chinese novel's inclusion of "long passages or extracts of poetry, fable, song, and essays, lists of goods, recipes, formulas for patent medicines, and even spells, which [. . .] to a Western eye, may appear altogether dispensable or supernumerary to the author's requirements as failing to advance the tale or deepen the reader's understanding of its characters" (An Insular Possession 316). Renegade largely conforms to this definition, and has a number of seemingly inconsequential episodes that fail to advance the narrative and appear to simply add color to the section of the novel in which they appear (e.g. 436; 447; 456-7; 460-62; 524-5). The advantage that Mo claims for the Chinese over the Western novel could equally be claimed for the picaresque: "It is truly a mirror of the lives they lead, without dissimulation or pretension, an unclouded reflection of the world as it is, where the material is not falsified to suit or fit some admired model" (318-9). This in part echoes Guillén’s assertion that the picaresque genre privileges “the material level of existence” (83). Mo appears to be cultivating a material-realist narrative mode as opposed to mainstream fiction that tends to privilege esthetic concerns (of form) over realist ones. Overstated as his protagonist's claim is in An Insular Possession, the novel that dispenses with a structured plot is clearly being offered as a vehicle that lends itself more readily to a treatment of the fragmentary nature of contemporary life.
Mo has said that Renegade “has a strong thematic unity – looking at the stories various characters tell about themselves, I only now see all the tales are about loss and deception” (Letters). Within the loose narrative structure lies a unifying, if anti-heroic, vision. In Renegade Father Paul, one of Castro's Jesuit instructors, offers an interesting definition of what constitutes the core of any book:
[. . .] the kernel of any book is not its content but what is left out. A volume of the greatest history or philosophy doesn't recreate the world; it annihilates it as theology does; it dispossesses and destroys it. The greatest art floats on the value and volume of what it has displaced. It takes its shape from what isn't in it. (34)
What is it in Renegade that has been displaced? One reviewer of the book latches on to the fact that Castro at one point calls his adventures an "Odysseyette," because, the reviewer explains, the novel is a chapter short of the 24 books comprising the Odyssey (but also obviously because a chapter does not carry the same weight as a book of blank verse). He calls Castro a "latter-day Odysseus" who travels across the known world to return to his native land (Riemer 11). However, in giving Castro "a cool heart" Father Paul gives him "the most Eastern of all virtues," representing "neither a doing nor the enduring fortitude of the true hero" (40). Is the displaced subject of the book the impossibility of becoming an epic hero in the contemporary world? The Penelope to whom Castro returns at the end is his "Auntie" Irish, a professional bar-girl, with whom he has drunken, loveless sex. Despite encountering as many strange individuals and societies as did Odysseus, Castro illustrates the failure of the modern world to offer the opportunities for individual choice and action that help to define the epic hero. In giving his picaresque tale a mock-epic reference, is Mo bending the picaresque genre to accommodate the displaced theme of his book - the widespread refusal to grant agency to the displaced transnationals of our contemporary world?
One quality of the picaresque novel is that, "[t]hrown with people from every class and often from different parts of the world, the picaro serves them intimately in some lowly capacity and learns all their foibles and frailties" (Holman 356). This is especially true of Ng in The Redundancy of Courage (1991) and Castro in Renegade, although one can see Gideon in An Insular Possession, who is used and discarded by a British commander, and Boyet in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (1995), who is employed and then fired by a town newspaper, as fulfilling a similar role (in the sense that Propp uses the term3). Mo's use of the picaresque enables him to expose the transgressions and failings of what he calls members of the tribe from the vantage point of the disempowered. The picaro's outsider identity is pitted against tribal nationalism in all his novels, starting with the first two in which the family is portrayed as a totalitarian micro state the malignant influence of which is best seen in the Triads that murder Chen in Sour Sweet (1982). The fatherless Castro's Jesuit education gives him not just a cool heart, but "permanent emancipation from tribalism" (40). Tribalism is used in this pejorative sense repeatedly throughout Renegade to signify the oppressive nature of nationalism, its racist, religious or cultural exclusivity, its need to define itself by casting immigrants and illegals as its despised but needed other. What turns Castro into an illegal immigrant, subject to the exploitation of members of the tribe, is his one attempt to become part of a tribe himself. As a member of a fraternity of young lawyers in training, Castro finds himself forced to implicate himself in a group murder of a young woman they have gang raped, which he privately deplores but fails to prevent due to what he calls a "cultural imperative" (130). Mo explains this: “As an Asian he has to put his group before himself as an individual” (Letters). Elaine Yee Lin Ho cites Castro's dispassionate description of this episode as evidence of "the barest reflection . . . into why he acts as he does" (135). In contrast Mo emphasizes the fact that Castro refuses to participate in the fraternity’s evil “to the point of facing down a bullet. He has acted entirely honourably and I think Smollett would have thought so too” (Letters). Castro spends the next four hundred pages expiating his youthful error of attempting to join the tribe, being forced to flee the country when he is framed by the fraternity and to travel the world as an illegal immigrant. As Mo told one interviewer, the young woman's "ghost haunts the novel" (Mo, Jaggi 11). What Castro seeks in the course of his picaresque wanderings over the globe is a sense of individual identity divorced from that of tribe or nation. The entire book, Mo has said, is "a critique of social culture" (Mo, Jaggi 11).
Identity, however, is a construction that is continually in process, a construction that is constituted within representation. Looked at in a Derridean light, identity is a cultural or linguistic product.[i] As Stuart Hall points out, because identities are produced within specific discursive formations and practices, "they emerge within the play of specific modalities of power, and thus are more the product of the marking of difference and exclusion, than they are the sign of an identical, naturally constituted unity" ("Introduction" 4). This means that identity is constructed through difference, through the relation to what it is not, through the other. Thus the member of a nation defines his position, asserts his identity, by reference to the excluded other, to that which he lacks or which remains repressed within himself. As Etienne Balibar suggests, "the racial identity of 'true nationals' remains invisible but is inferred from [. . .] the quasi-hallucinatory visibility of the 'false nationals'--Jews, 'wops,' immigrants, indios, natives, blacks" (284). Virtually all of Mo's picaresque protagonists and narrators qualify as false nationals. In The Monkey King (1978) Wallace prides himself on his Portuguese extraction despite looking as Cantonese as the Poon Chinese family into which he marries and which despises his Portuguese origins. Sour Sweet calls Chen, the new immigrant to Britain, “an interloper,” adding, “He regarded himself as such” (1). The two Americans in An Insular Possession are outsiders who are opposed to the opium trade that the imperialist British and other European trading nations forcefully promote. In Redundancy Ng refers to himself as a Chinese faggot; because he is Chinese he is excluded from being admitted to the party of the Danuese nationals on whose side he fights. Brownout has no particular protagonists, but virtually all its Filipino characters define themselves by their difference from false nationals. Castro, the black Filipino narrator/protagonist of Renegade, is "an underdog by birth and temperament," one "of the despised outsiders" (190).
Balibar concludes that increased prejudicial attitudes towards the "false" will never ensure that the "true" are sufficiently visible (285). Thus national or tribal identity is established by reference to what Laclau and Mouffe term its "constitutive outside" (122-127). They see identity as a concept that is constantly contested because it necessarily involves exclusion, the drawing of an imaginary line which those on the wrong side will naturally contest. The excluded constitute the "constitutive outside" that haunts the very process of identity formation. To free themselves of such ghosts leads those asserting tribal identity to denigrate, punish, expel and attempt to destroy the excluded, an attempt that by definition is destined to fail, as if they succeeded they would lose their very sense of identity. Thus members of the tribe need those they exclude to contest their exclusion in order that members can reiterate their right to national or racial membership. One of the explanations for the appearance of the picaro in Spain’s Golden Age is the importance attached to pure descent, limpieza de sangre (literally, purity of blood) for a Spaniard to be guaranteed a secure position in society. This insistence on noble lineage, supported by the Inquisition, ensured a lower class of outsiders, including ethnic minorities, whose discontents were epitomized by the picaro, a literary invention.
True to form, the various nationals in Mo's books denigrate all non-nationals, whether they are members of another nation or - better still - illegals. On the first page of The Monkey King we learn that the Portuguese and Chinese look down on each other. When Wallace's Anglophile Portuguese father tries to reconcile Wallace with the Chinese by saying, "'Understand the English and you will understand the Chinese, too'," Wallace amusingly reverts to a double prejudice: he "did not dispute the analogy. The English were a nation of crafty hypocrites as well" (5). An Insular Possession talks about the mutual contempt for each other of the British and Chinese which "has brought about the chronically recurrent major condition where the other party have ceased to be seen as people, but as simple objects of dislike and ridicule" (93). In Mo’s fiction nationalism and tribalism find their ultimate expression in war, the ultimate signifier of the difference needed to assert national identity. In Redundancy Danu (which closely resembles East Timor) is no sooner freed of its Dutch colonizers than it is invaded by malais (cf. Indonesians) whose neo-colonial subjugation of the Danuese is encouraged by American capital anxious to exploit Danu’s offshore oil reserves. Danuese nationalism is therefore constituted in the course of resisting imperialist outsiders. Yet this doesn’t prevent the Danuese nationalist guerillas from also casting their Chinese comrade in arms, Ng, the protagonist, as another kind of outcast who helps them to assert their national identity.
The view that identity is a discursive construct is taken to an extreme by Judith Butler who asserts that "identifications belong to the imaginary" that "are never fully and finally made" but "are incessantly reconstituted" (105). Identity is a process, then, that is always being fought for. Subject to what Butler calls "the volatile logic of iterability" (105), it has to be reasserted repeatedly by differentiation from its other. Mo seems to share the idea that subjects are in a constant state of formation. Hence his rejection of plot-driven narrative and character development, and his adoption of the open ended genre of the picaresque. He is especially interested in the construction of the identity of the other, the tribally excluded. If an identity requires an other to define itself, then does the other have to find its other? Does it treat the identity of the tribe as its other? Or is it effectively excluded from the dominant discourse of power and (imaginary) identity? As Albert Memmi has memorably put it, "the most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history"--Western history, that is (91). Does that mean that the other is denied identity or agency in the dominant Western discourse? In Redundancy Ng is treated as the other by both sides in the ethnic conflict between the malais and Danuese. As an outsider to both races, Ng finds that he is constructed by them linguistically as a complex oxymoron: "I was a Chinese entrepreneur with capital. I was an exploiter. I was a provider of work. I was a parasite. I was hated. I was to be appeased. I was vulnerable. I was powerful."( 51). Mo uses a succession of tropes to linguistically undercut the validity of the definition of the other by the majority
Castro is a more sympathetically portrayed picaro, being a hotchpotch or halo-halo of races, nationalities and cultures. Like Ng he is exploited by various nationals for whom he works in the course of his picaresque wanderings. But he is good natured, identifies with his fellow outcasts and when he can he intervenes to help them. Once he has made the mistake of trying to gain acceptance within the group of privileged law students with whom he is training, he learns to reject all forms of tribalism in favor of developing his own (oversimplified) sense of personal identity. "I was a man, that was my primary visible tribe" (190). The way he achieves a sense of individual identity is by distancing himself from every form of national or ethnic grouping. Castro inverts the formation of identity by equating the other with anyone claiming affiliation on grounds of ethnicity, religion or nationality. The outsider is the only individual to acknowledge and live out the evanescent and conflicted nature of subjectivity in process.
Mo has consistently equated the need to respect group identities (epitomized by the United Nations Human Development Report 2004) with a risible form of political correctness, an equation that many reviewers have misunderstood. As one reviewer of Renegade wrote, "If a white European had written this stuff it would be laughed at or despised, but Mo has Asian blood, so that presumably makes his crude cartoons okay" (Moreton 12). Elaine Ho echoes this reading of Mo’s use of stereotyping: "Castro is [. . .] quick to stereotype others, and reduce entire cultures to a convenient summary of fixed qualities [. . .] To argue this point is to explore one of the ways in which the text problematises the first-person narrator: how it shows in him a kind of blindness that replicates the process the world uses to stigmatise and diminish him" (137-8). Like the picaro, Mo sees all forms of group identity as oppressive, a threat to the autonomy of the self. So it is not surprising that he believes that all forms of “political correctness, or even good taste, are hypocritical conventions of the day a novelist with integrity will always ignore" (Home Page). He maintains that "individuals will rise above the imputed traits of a group,” as most of his protagonists do in practice. As he observes, "there's the truth of things, and there's how we would like them to be" (Mo, Tonkin 9). To counter the myth of what Zadie Smith terms “Happy Multicultural Land” (384), Mo looks at the assertion of various forms of group identity through the eyes of a picaresque narrator excluded from the possibility of being admitted to the group. In describing his various picaros’ peripatetic adventures, Mo makes seemingly indiscriminate use of racial and national stereotypes, creating what one reviewer has called "a landscape of interlocking prejudices" (Bedford 40).
The clearest instance of how this functions at the macro level is to be found in the way he structures Brownout. The novel is divided into two parts and is further balanced by a prologue and epilogue. Part One portrays representative members of an imaginary Philippine city, Gobernador de Leon. This typical third world city is afflicted by repeated power "brownouts" (partial blackouts), symbolic of "the moral brownout that was the totality of society" (185). The novel presents a national congressman and his manipulative wife, two journalists and a gangster as representatives of this underdeveloped country. In Part One third world stereotypes proliferate. Mo describes Philippine companies that go in for “rainforest rape” (32), a Philippine congressman who “is in politics for money” (26), and a Philippine gangster who looks “like a Mexican bandido, El Jefe from a Sam Peckinpah movie” (57-8). Mo has no hesitation in castigating Philippine women for being torn between their ideological commitment to feminist freedoms and traditional Asian instincts: "As both they were screwed up" (137). On the last page of Part One the protagonist claims that his wife “was more Asian than educated” (138). However, Part Two offers an exhaustive account of an international conference organized by the congressman's wife that is attended by a gallery of first world "experts" who discuss the impediments preventing the Philippines from becoming one of the developed nations. These Westernized experts reveal the same kind of prejudice as their Philippine counterparts. The most outrageous of these is a German professor who tells his Philippine audience, "no progress unless you admit you are inferior." A New Zealand moderator proves just as biased in the course of trying to correct the German’s politically incorrect outspokenness: “Well, I’ve more than once remarked on the Alice in Wonderland quality of national life to myself. But don’t you think, Professor, that some things are better left unsaid?” (224). The representatives of supposedly developed countries prove as prejudiced as the underdeveloped Filipinos. The bipartite structure of this minimally plotted novel plays off the failings of first and third worlds by juxtaposing one set of tribal prejudices against another, thus neutralizing their desire to construct a sense of identity by casting their foreign counterparts as their other.
However, Mo shows not just the members of dominant groups but also his excluded protagonists employing the stereotypical language of prejudice and abuse. In Sour Sweet the immigrant Chinese offer a reverse form of colonization by referring to the British as "natives" that all look the same, just as the Chinese Mr. Poon in The Monkey King alleges that Western food leaves you hungry after an hour. In the same way Ng in Redundancy takes for granted the "far more backward” nature of “Europeans" (330). Gideon, one of the American journalists in An Insular Possession, is an exception: he learns Chinese and is able to offer the kind of insight that reveals such prejudices as the product of willful cultural ignorance. The charge that the Chinese habitually lie is true, he writes, but it is never a cause for shame among them: "To say to the Chinese, 'Sir, I disbelieve everything you say and regard you in the light of a confirmed and habitual liar,' is to say to an American or an Englishman, 'Sir, I understand you are a skilled and faithful mimic and I should greatly desire to be given a sample of your repertoire'" (394). Cultural norms are not “natural” but wholly relative to the well traveled migrant. As Judie Newman observes, "postcolonial writers are [. . .] often at their politically sharpest, when they are also at their most literary" (4).
Mo is not afraid to incorporate prejudicial opinions concerning the ex-colonized, or what he calls in Brownout the Turd World, although his favorite means of doing this is to have the prejudice come out of the mouth of a different ex-colonized national. Thus in Renegade Castro, a black Filipino, fires off prejudicial opinions concerning different nationalities that are the outcome of seeing them from a worm's eye view: "On the whole I liked Cuba but I disliked the Cubans. This was one better than the Arabian peninsula where I disliked both Bohaiden [modeled on Kuwait] and the Bohaidenese but a reversal of the situation in Britain where I disliked England but liked the English" (480). The perfect symmetry of these two sentences draws attention to distance between such esthetically formed verbal structures and the halo-halo hodgepodge found within such essentializing stereotypes. Mo also uses racial and ethnic typecasting to detach the protagonist from any groups with which he may be tempted to identify. In Redundancy Ng, the Chinese narrator, reflects on the circumstances surrounding his appointment as the Danuese guerillas' principal explosives expert: "It was a craft - mining, booby-trapping - that was peculiarly Chinese. I mean in its ingenuity, in its low small-mindedness, its attention to detail, its pettifogging neatness. At that kind of handiwork the Chinese traditionally excelled" (168). Castro is equally damning about some of his fellow Filipinos' characteristics, "our tribal propensity to lie, gossip, cheat, and appropriate" (429), and characterizes the Philippines as a country peopled by "police who were kidnappers, bank robbers, and contract killers in the pay of politicians, judges who auctioned their verdicts, priests who melted down the altar ornaments, teachers who sold examination questions" (431). On the other hand Castro reminds the reader of the country's long history of colonial occupation - "[t]hree hundred years of Torquemada [Spain] and fifty of Loony Tunes [America] - man, we had no idea who we were anymore" (31). The reader is invited to see this historical explanation as simultaneously praise for the hybrid subject who can not claim any pure group identity.
Castro's mixed identity, combined with his willingness to forgive the racial prejudice he encounters because of his blackness, removes him from the world of fixed tribal identities. He observes that "black men [. . .] found their identity in grievance, much of it real, albeit historical, and not a little entirely imaginary. I could lose that with a shrug and a smile" (345). In learning to construct an identity without recourse to an imaginary other, Castro occupies the role of the post-postcolonial. Mo has defended the use of national, cultural and racial caricatures as “a survival blueprint that human beings carry around” (“Book Interview” 9). Like picaresque traveler through foreign lands, Castro learns to see beneath the instant stereotypes that he first constructs for himself on encountering a new country and people: "Up to a point, travel and the encounters it forced upon you emphasised the differences between human beings, the contrasts between the Babyjanes and Huberts of this world but, beyond that, you started to remark the similarities as well [. . .]" (371). This is why Castro, a renegade or outsider in all societies and nations, finds himself drawn to his fellow outcasts whose identity is never a national or racial or cultural construct. He can say of a Cuban gay man and his companions, "'Shit, these dudes are grade-A poofters," because he "liked people who were out of their context, the sore thumb of their societies, renegades [. . .]" (494). A gentle Filipino, Castro is treated by most strangers as a black hulk of muscle. The disparity between the racial expectations of those he meets and his education, intelligence and refusal to take offence exposes the prejudices (based on appearance) held by most nationalities and ethnic groups. Even his favorite English employer, Commander Smith, harbors such prejudices at first. When Smith begins to suspect that Castro is brighter than others think, Castro deliberately assumes the camouflage of the ignorant Filipino servant (gardener and chauffeur): "Serr, flower bagged pero front wheel nuts of da car is lacking one" (219). This mimicry of Filipino demotic is made more comical situated in the context of a narration by Castro that constantly compares his present situation to classical precedents: "am I not treading in the footsteps of the exile Polybius and the metropolitan Livy, sniffing, sifting as we go for the truffle of truth, discounting the stale, discarding the tainted, and disdaining the pretensions of mere mushrooms?" (109). To claim identity solely through membership of a tribe is to become a commonplace, “pretentious” mushroom which constructs its imaginary identity by casting the truffle (of truth) in the role of the other. Castro’s wanderings among the mushrooms of the world reinforce his commitment to searching out the true truffle of a subjectivity detached from a subscription to group identity. "I think of how much I hate and fear teams: the congregation and the gang, the crew and the tribe" (538).
Viewed in Foucauldian terms, the renegades of this life refuse to have their subjectivities wholly interpellated by discursive formations of nationality and race. Instead they are the kind of individuals who "decipher, recognize and acknowledge themselves as subjects of desire" (Foucault 5). Castro as picaro is searching for what Foucault calls the "forms and modalities of the relation to self" by which the individual "constitutes and recognizes himself qua subject" (5). Although Castro is a desiring subject, he is portrayed as a subject largely lacking agency in his external dealings with a hostile world that discriminates against the underclass to which he belongs. Yet what the prejudiced world practices is an arbitrary break in the endless process of deferring the differential terms by which subjectivity is produced.4 If identity is dependent on difference, it is equally subject to deferral, constantly in process. To assert a stable identity through tribal membership, as the world at large attempts to do, is, as Stuart Hall suggests, to "mistake this 'cut' of identity - this positioning, which makes meaning possible - as a natural and permanent, rather than an 'arbitrary' and contingent 'ending'" ("Cultural Identity" 397). In the course of his travels Castro learns to see beneath the seeming stability of group identity the effect of difference--the continuing deferral of full meaning, just as members of such groups will continue to intermarry and lose the purity of their group identity through such additional differences. In a world increasingly subject to mass migrations and uprootings, everyone is moving closer to the mixture of halo-halo which Castro chooses as his nickname (11). Mo has gone on record as saying that he is addressing his novels to a future readership when "there'll be more halo-halos like myself" (“A Life” 11).
Halo-halo acts as a controlling metaphor in Renegade. In adopting the name of this strange but popular Asian combination of ingredients, Castro explains that he is alluding “to variety, to delicious hotch-potch, and inspired mixing,” “me as Man Sundae,” he adds, punning on Robinson Crusoe’s equally exploited Man Friday and the Western dessert that rivals the Asian one in its mix of ingredients (11). As he explains at another moment, "A Halo2 is a whole bunch of ingredients that shouldn't belong together but work when you combine them" (261). When Castro’s Jesuit teacher approvingly quotes the Philippines’ martyred writer, José Rizal’s “el demonio de las comparaciones” (which also serves as the epigraph of the novel), he loosely translates this as “the restlessness and uncertainty brought on by too wide a knowledge of the world. The indigestion halo-halo can bring on” (36). Mo puns on halo, understood as nimbus (he refers to his admired English employers as “my haloed Smiths” ), to associate a racial/ethnic mixture with martyred innocence or virtue. But he also makes clear the indigestion that follows the adoption or inheritance of such a mixture shared by what his homepage calls “that global underclass of illegal immigrants, guestworkers, boatpeople, stowaways, victims of human smuggling and kidnapping syndicates, and mercenaries whose history is the obverse of the face of our times.” The underclass of halo-halos to which this picaro belongs in Renegade is simultaneously admired for its independence from, and pitied for its victimization by, the group. Mo is not too explicit about how such halo-halos as Castro can avoid using a constitutive other to create a non-tribal self. The only time Castro self consciously positions himself as the opposing other is when he meets two Finns who fail to react to his menacing black physique with the usual prejudicial fear: “If I was special blend, the ultimate in Halo2, they were uncomplicated, unadulterated, homogenous essence. They had no racial animosities, man, because they had no races” (524). To create your identity by belonging to a race is the offence, which can be avoided by belonging either to no race or to all races thrown together.
No matter how much Castro and his fellow renegades lack agency in a social sense, condemned to serve members of supposedly stable elite groupings, he is not totally deprived of self-definition. As picaresque narrator, Castro can define himself as a subject of desire through the act of narration. Like Ng in Redundancy and the two Americans in An Insular Possession, Castro can take control of his as well as others' stories. He can represent himself and others not as they are represented by the media or by members of dominant groups, but as he subjectively experiences them. Like Frantz Fanon he can use the power of narrative to resist his definition by others as their other and "burst apart." Fanon continues: "Now the fragments have been put together again by another self" (109). According to Douglas Kerr, Castro's narrative "might be seen as a sort of belated revenge enacted on tribalism itself" (25). A victim in his role as protagonist, Castro becomes the satirical avenger as the book’s narrator. Maybe like Hamlet Castro largely fails in the world of action because he thinks too much or has what Castro's mother calls a "mind advance-dirty"( 31). But as a narrator he shows immense skill in mimicking a bewildering range of voices that betray the follies and avarice of their tribal speakers. Mo has always regarded narrative as a kind of martial art. One of his rare autobiographical essays is titled "Fighting Their Writing." In it Mo argues that "those craven souls who like to make life miserable for those who are different . . . are best met with an utterly inappropriate degree of retaliatory violence" (307). This might explain the verbal savagery with which many of Mo's protagonists portray their socially advantaged opponents. Castro lashes out at the "empty faces" of the inscrutable Chinese whose "lack of compassion encompassed themselves" (75, 160-1), just as he characterizes the Bohaidenese Arabs as compensating for their liberal attitudes to the consumption of alcohol by "lopp[ing] off the heads and hands of murderers and thieves as if there was no tomorrow and dump[ing] mechanical grab-fuls of boulders on adulteresses" (307). His use of narrative violence parallels that of Thomas Nashe, whose The Unfortunate Traveller constitutes the first, if impure, instance of the picaresque in the English language. Both writers employ a rhetorical style of excess.
At one point Castro applies the term halo-halo to language itself, specifically to the Visayan language in which "possessive, dative, and ablative could become syntactical halo-halo” (29). It is appropriate that the novel as a whole should employ a heteroglossic form of narrative that echoes the rich mixture of cultures and races and anti-establishment ideology that constitute Castro.5 Bakhtin associates the novel with “a disintegration of stable verbal ideological systems and with an intensification and intentionalization of speech diversity” (371). Castro recounts the "momentous day" he "learned the word oxymoron" (36), a figure of speech that symbolizes the way his narrative is constructed from seemingly contradictory voices. Castro's own narration alternates abruptly between the learned and the colloquial: "whether he was in loco parentis or just plain loco" (39). The entire narrative is a collage of differing, competing and contradictory voices. There is the precise didactic speech of his Jesuit teacher Fr. Paul, the "third rate oratory" of Attorney Caladong (57), the measured tones of Commander Smith, the sports terminology of his basketball coach ("When the going gets tough, that's when the tough get going" ), the formulaic and unfeeling way of speaking used by his Arabic employer, Faud, the Philippine slang used by the domestic, Bebegene ("I'm the one to be on duty eighteen hours da day, scrub-scrub, wash-wash [. . .]" 389), the half Spanish half English of his Cuban friends--the list is seemingly endless. His best friend, Danton, speaks and writes a form of bastard English that only makes him more endearing to Castro: "Shut da puck up, you big nigger know-alls," he says to Castro (108), Castro equally reveres the deployment of language at its most elevated. He asks, "Who knows what sordid horrors grace of language and clarity of thought cannot redeem?" (109). In his role as narrator, Castro embodies the book's celebration of heteroglossia.
The chorus of polyglot voices from many nations in the novel form a model for the language politics of the book as a whole. In the same way Castro's physical and linguistic embodiment of halo-halo disconfirms the easy stereotypes to which the characters so often resort. He is constantly the object of others' stereotyping which his complicatedly mixed makeup and vocabulary invariably discountenance. He is mistaken for a physically tough, unintelligent African American. But he turns out to be "the nigger in the woodpile" (503) - a neat reversal of a stereotype, “Superman saving the world from itself” (166), not to mention "Frankenstein's Monster" (530) - made one by his enforced picaresque travels in foreign parts, he claims. He is the walking embodiment of the danger of stereotyping anyone because of their physical appearance or ethnic identity. It is the halo-halo nature of Castro that enables him to escape both the confines of tribal identity and the confines of the well plotted narrative. His definition of his unique subjectivity does not just coincide with his adoption of the picaresque narrative; that narrative offers him a way of forging his subjectivity out of his picaresque encounters with those who seek to position him as their other. Even as he is being positioned as the other, his narration of such attempts re-empowers him as the picaro satirizing them. His retrospective narration restores agency to a protagonist whose life as an illegal immigrant deprives him of such agency. Narrative, according to Castro, offers a potential avenue for mediation. "Language, Father Paul taught us, was the ladder over the walls that divide us" (34).
Mo says that he writes about "the clash of cultures, the war of civilisations" (“A Life” 11). But he invariably takes the vantage point of the dispossessed. The picaresque narrative genre offered him a ready made model for using the first person voice of the dispossessed to expose the hegemonic pretensions and hypocrisy of governments and ruling classes. Its episodic development reflects the picaro’s conviction that life as he experiences it is haphazard, fragmentary and subject to chance. The well plotted novel assumes that life can be seen to have some order and teleological purpose. It offers a “coherent, non-contradictory interpretation of the world” (Belsey 69). The picaresque novel, on the other hand, is the response of the social outcast for whom life is incoherent, a series of accidents which have no necessary connection to one another. For the picaro the world is necessarily halo-halo.
The original picaro might have been representative of conversos excluded from their former social group and despised by their Christian conquers. Subsequent European picaros find themselves disbarred from legally supporting themselves within a capitalist economy. The contemporary picaro is the displaced national or the illegal immigrant who transgresses national, religious and ethnic boundaries. Immigration to developed countries has become one of the most contentious political issues of today. But the discourse of the internationally displaced remains largely silenced. Even if one accepts Spivak’s partly retracted assertion that the subaltern cannot speak, the novelist can still imagine what the subaltern as exceptional and eloquent as Castro might say. Mo sees his picaresque contribution to the internationalization of English literature as “part of the decolonialisation process" (“Creating a Hero” 6). He assumes that, to be truly reflective of the ex-colonized, fiction has to abjure the comfort of good form. What he offers in its place is a fascinating halo-halo of locales, peoples and situations paralleled by a brilliantly ventriloquized cacophony of voices. If, as Father Paul, says, “the kernel in any book is not its content but what it has left out” (34), Renegade takes its shape from what it isn’t, the well plotted novel which reassures its readers that subjectivity is definable and can be given a sense of finality by the use of narrative closure. Renegade ends with one final oxymoron: “I stand. I lurch” (539). Mo’s picaro is still upright and stationary, still in movement, his subjectivity still in process, and still narrating that process..
1 See Daniel Eisenberg, “Does the Picaresque Novel Exist?” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 26 (1979): 203-19.
2 See Americo Castro, Hacia Cervantes (1957), Alexander Blackburn, The Myth of the Picaro (1979), and especially Richard Bjornson, The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction (1977).
3 According to Propp there are seven "roles" or "spheres of action" which can be assumed by a variety of characters in the Russian folktale. The same character can assume more than one role and one role can be assumed by one or several characters. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott, ed. Louis A. Wagner (Austin: U of Texas P, 1968).
4 Derrida insists that “Since language . . .has not fallen from the sky, its differences have been produced, are produced effects, which do not find their cause in a subject or [. . .] a being that is somewhere present, thereby eluding the play of différance." So for Derrida the subject is "inscribed in language, is a 'function' of language, becomes a speaking subject only by making its speech conform . . . to the system of the rules of language as a system of differences. . ." Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982) 11, 15. Yet as he protested, “I don’t destroy the subject; I situate it.” He situates it within the web of a language system that perpetually postpones full meaning. Richard Macksey & Eugenio Donato, eds, The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1970) 271.
5 "Heteroglossia" is a term used by Mikhail Bakhtin to refer to "the social diversity of speech types," by which he means "social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, of various circles and of passing fashions, languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour. . ." The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981) 262-3.
- Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
- Balibar, Etienne. "Paradoxes of Universality." Anatomy of Racism. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.
- Battersby, Eileen. "The Redundancy of Defiance." Rev. of Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, by Timothy Mo. Irish Times 19 May 1995: 14.
- Bedford, Martyn. "Sugar and Spice." Rev. of Renegade or Halo2, by Timothy Mo. New Statesman 16 Aug. 1999: 40.
- Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London and New York: Methuen, 1980.
- Bjornson, Richard. The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1977.
- Blackburn, Alexander. The Myth of the Picaro: Continuity and Transformation of the Picaresque Novel 1554-1954. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1979.
- Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Cross, Wilbur L. Development of the English Novel. New Haven: Yale UP, 1900.
- Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles L. Markmann. London: Pluto, 1986.
- Foucault, Michel. The Use of Pleasure. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.
- Guillén, Claudio. Literature as System: Essays toward the Theory of Literary History. Princeton: Princeton UP. 1971.
- Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 392-403.
---. "Introduction: Who Needs Identity?" Questions of Cultural Identity. Ed. Stuart, Hall and Paul du Gay. London: Sage, 1996. 1-17.
- Ho, Elaine Yee Lin. Timothy Mo. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2000.
- Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
- Kerr, Douglas. "Timothy Mo's Man Sundae, and Other Overseas Workers." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 36.2 (2001): 15-27.
- Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Politics. London: Verso, 1985.
- McRae, John. "One Mo for the Turd World." Rev. of Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, by Timothy Mo. New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) 24 May 1995: 33.
- Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. London: Earthscan, 1990.
- Mo, Timothy. The Monkey King. London: Paddleless P, 2000.
---. Sour Sweet. London: Sphere, 1983.
---. An Insular Possession. New York: Random, 1987.
---. The Redundancy of Courage. London: Vintage, 1991.
---. Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard. London: Paddleless P, 1995.
---. Renegade or Halo2. London: Paddleless P, 2000.
---. "Fighting Their Writing: The Unholy Lingo of TLS and Kung Fu Tse." New Writing. Ed. Christopher Hope and Peter Porter. London: Vintage, 1996. 299-318.
---. "The Book Interview: Timothy Mo - Postcards from the Edge." Interview with Boyd Tonkin. Independent 10 July 1999: 9.
---. "Creating a Hero of our Times." Interview with Kate Pullinger. Sunday Times (London) 14 Apr. 1991: Books 6-7.
---. "Fighter Ready to Take a Dive." Interview with Clare Boylan. Guardian 24 Oct. 1991: Review / Books 25.
---. Home page. 20 July 2004
---. Letters to the author. 30 Nov. and 1 Dec. 2005.
---. "A Life in Writing: Mixtures like Candied Napalm." Interview with Maya Jaggi. Guardian 7 Oct. 2000: 11.
- Monteser, Frederick. The Picaresque Element in Western Literature. Alabama: U of Alabama P, 1975.
- Moreton, Cole. "Books: Manilla Ice Cream." Rev. of Renegade or Halo2, by Timothy Mo. Independent 25 July 1999: Features 12.
- Newman, Judie. The Ballistic Bard: Postcolonial Fictions. London: Edward Arnold, 1995.
- Paulson, R. Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1967.
- Riemer, Andrew. "Sweet Brown Sugar." Rev. of Renegade or Halo2, by Timothy Mo. Sydney Morning Herald 4 Dec. 1999: 11.
- Scott, Rivers. "Eastern Eye." Rev. of An Insular Possession, by Timothy Mo. Listener 8 May 1986: 25.
- Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Vintage/Random House, 2000.
- Sutherland, John. "A Strange Cocktail." Rev. of Renegade or Halo2 by Timothy Mo. Sunday Times (London) 4 July 1999: 12.
- Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. London: Penguin, 1963.
- Yardley, Jonathan. "Timothy Mo's Asan Studies." Rev. of An Insular Possession, by Timothy Mo. Washington Post 26 Apr. 1987: X3.
Copyright: Brian Finney 2007