The Monkey King by Timothy Mo (Morrow: $16.95; 275 pp.)

Feldman is PR director of the China Institute in New York, a contributing editor to Publishers Weekly and a frequent visitor to China and Hong Kong

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 Hong Kong and to Chinese folk tradition for inspiration in his first novel, "The Monkey King." So consciously to evoke comparison with one of China's most popular and enduring works of fiction in other hands could have been courting disaster. But, like its illustrious forebear, this 20th-Century tale is at turns comic and serious, sympathetic and cruel, and certainly never dull. Although it was originally published in Great Britain almost 10 years ago, when Mo was in his mid-20s, "The Monkey King" has only just arrived in the United States, thanks in large part to the critical acclaim his second and third novels, "Sour Sweet" and "An Insular Possession," have received on both sides of the Atlantic. This belated crossing for an extraordinary literary debut is long overdue and one for which we should be grateful.

The teasing tone of Mo's novel is set by its very first line: "On the whole Wallace avoided intimate dealings with the Chinese." Wallace Nolasco, the story's protagonist, of course proceeds to take his readers on a very intimate, funny, exaggerated and enlightening journey into the heart of the Chinese world. Mo's central character has the ability to look at both sides of this world, as insider and observer. Although nominally a Portuguese from Macau and therefore like the Monkey King of legend, set apart from the Chinese who surround him, Wallace has had his blood diluted by so many generations of ancestral mixed marriages that to any outsider he would be indistinguishable from the Cantonese. "Like his fellow Portuguese, Wallace made the best of the situation. In fanciful moments, he saw the Chinese and himself as prisoners together in a long chain gang, the descendants of the original convicts."

The novel begins with Wallace's arranged marriage to May Ling Poon, the daughter of the second concubine of the miserly and extremely rich head of the house of Poon. Since his own family background is genteel but decidedly impoverished, the marriage from the Nolasco viewpoint is in theory at least not a bad deal; and offloading a daughter who is not an "official" daughter and therefore ineligible for a proper marriage to a Chinese is wonderfully convenient from the Poon vantage point. However, after taking up residence in the crumbling Hong Kong Island abode of his wife's extended family, Wallace discovers both to the reader's hilarity and shock that life among the Poons is not exactly the most delightful of experiences.

The novel is propelled by an almost Dickensian dynamic that is set in motion by the immensely self-centered, tyrannical and devious head of the household. The hierarchical family life of Confucian tradition whose ultimate aim was the harmonious ordering of society and continuation of the lineage, under Mr. Poon's dispensation becomes something akin to internecine warfare. To survive life among the Poons--two unmarriageable harpies of spinster sisters; an idle, emasculated and bullying son heir, Ah Lung; the latter's much put-upon wife, Ah Fong; their two children, "Hogan" and "Clarence"; Mr. Poon's wife and her assortment of sour and disobliging servants--Wallace, the outsider, and May Ling, his not entirely willing accomplice, must devise stratagems worthy of the Monkey King himself.

When Wallace decides to make an ally of his wife, this involves, among other acts of civil disobedience, educating her in the collected wisdom of the Western world via his favorite reading matter, "nuggets" from assorted issues of The Reader's Digest.

It also involves providing her with a role model in the person of a most unforgettable literary creation, one Mable Yip, who "had instantly impressed Wallace as a woman of character and influence, even originality. She was the ugliest woman he had ever met. Her ugliness was a kind of distinction . . . a fierce, positive rejection of any kind of comeliness . . . 'Really Mable look rather fine when you stop to think a1651471732who called themselves the friends of Mabel Yip were many."

Halfway through the novel, after Mr. Poon has implanted his son-in-law in a convenient government job, the scene shifts dramatically to the villages of the New Territories, a world away from Hong Kong Island itself. At times of trouble, be it dynastic change, a modern political purge or a rather more personal scrape, the Chinese traditionally seek refuge in their countryside. When Poon sets his son-in-law up to further some shady business dealings via the government job, Wallace and May Ling are forced to flee to a village under Mr. Poon's orders. It proves to be an unexpectedly liberating experience for them both. Coming from a household whose mechanism is oiled by general scheming and nastiness, they discover when left to their own devices a basic humanity and fondness for each other that is both touching and quite funny. After disaster strikes the village, the Monkey King and his consort engineer a solution that is both hilarious to read about and yet provides some very real insights into the Chinese order of things. In the end, they are triumphantly recalled to Hong Kong, but the final, rather disturbing image of the book reminds us that for all his ingenuity, the new, harmonious order that Wallace Nolasco established in the house of Poon exacts a certain price.

Like "Sour Sweet," "The Monkey King" holds a mirror up to the life of the family, which is at the very center of the Chinese universe. Although the images reflected by the glass are distorted through irony, farce, exaggeration, black humor and the like, they nevertheless cast some astonishing truths before the eyes of the careful observer while providing an exceedingly enjoyable read. Mo's language occasionally reveals a slight immaturity through trying just a little too hard; some scenes are not quite so convincing in their exaggeration as others. However, the rhythm of his prose and his gift for comic dialogue generally cannot be faulted. The rich promise of "The Monkey King" has already been confirmed by "Sour Sweet" and "An Insular Possession." We cannot but look forward to the next installment.

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