Sunday, 12 July 2015

Sour Sweet

Mostly everyone reading this blog has encountered some semblance of martial arts in corners of literature where one might least expect to do so. Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet is one such text from a writer short-listed three times for the Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in literature.

The book was published in 1982. I picked it up I think back in the early 90s thinking “OK, this is about a Chinese family making a new life for themselves in London”.  Maybe I hoped to run across a bit of V.S.  Naipul. The writing did look solid at first glance, controlled by a professional hand, and with its own distinctive voice. In other words, the book was seaworthy enough for me to read.

Family: the father, the wife, the sister and the little boy, all adjusting to their new life. My parents did the same here in Canada, after they arrived from Europe. And so did the families of many friends.

So, I thought, let’s read their story.

From the outset, events move along in a family way – a bit of comedy, a bit of sadness (Sour Sweet). The main characters develop their voices from the outset and assume their places within the narrative stream.

And then.

Several chapters in, the narrative swings over to a hall, where rows of Triad foot soldiers are being trained by a very competent, hard core Chinese boxer and his assistant.  Their objective: to prepare these novices sufficiently in time for an upcoming battle with a rival Triad.

Their training strategy is to the point. Nothing extraneous is allowed in. Very little time is left for preparations. These men must be outfitted with techniques that work.

Not only was I surprised to encounter realistic back door basement martial arts but the manner in which the two instructors outlined their objectives was also very real.

I’m not sure whether Timothy Mo ever trained in martial arts but even if he didn’t, he must have had his ears pressed against the outside of some door.

The fight scene later on in the novel spares no essential detail. It’s as real as any military operation. Real too is what happens to the main instructor toward the end of the story.

Let’s just say I recommend this book to readers who want to have a brief encounter in print with one variety of “old school” Chinese martial arts. Of course, beyond the Triad part of the narrative, the entire book itself is well worth the effort.

Another, more recent piece of literature where martial arts plays a role, this time the Japanese arts, is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a phenomenal best seller. But more on that later!

The following comes from BRITISH COUNCIL

Timothy Mo was born in Hong Kong in 1950 to a Cantonese father and an English mother. He was educated in Hong Kong and England. After graduating from St John's College, Oxford, he worked as a journalist for the New Statesman and Boxing News. With Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Mo emerged in the 1980s as one of the most important novelists writing about bi-cultural diversity, reflecting both his Anglo-Chinese background and his concerns for the effects of imperialism and colonial rule in South-East Asia.

His first novel, The Monkey King (1978), set in Hong Kong, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. His next three novels were all shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction: Sour Sweet (1982), the story of a Chinese immigrant family living in London, winner of the Hawthornden Prize; An Insular Possession (1986), set during the Opium Wars between Britain and China in the first half of the nineteenth century; and The Redundancy of Courage (1991), a fictional account of Indonesia's annexation of East Timor in 1976. Sour Sweet was adapted as a film in 1988 with a screenplay by Ian McEwan.

Mo has published his two most recent books himself. Both are set in the Philippines: Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (1995), set during an academic conference, a satire of cultural and imperial domination, while Renegade or Halo2 (1999) describes the adventures of Rey Archimedes Blondel Castro, the son of an American G.I. and a Filipina bar-girl. Renegade or Halo2 was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction).
His next book, Pure (2012), was published over a decade later , the heroine of which is a Bangkok lady boy who joins a company of Islamist warriors.

Critical Perspective

Timothy Mo established his literary reputation from the word go with his prize winning first novel, The Monkey King (1978).


Pure, Turnaround Books
Renegade or Halo2, Paddleless Press
Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, Paddleless Press
The Redundancy of Courage, Chatto & Windus
An Insular Possession, Chatto & Windus
Sour Sweet, André Deutsch
The Monkey King, André Deutsch


James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), Renegade or Halo2
E. M. Forster Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters
Booker Prize for Fiction, The Redundancy of Courage, shortlist
Booker Prize for Fiction, An Insular Possession, shortlist
Hawthornden Prize, Sour Sweet
Booker Prize for Fiction, Sour Sweet, shortlist
Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, The Monkey King

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