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

July 05, 1987|Gayle Feldman | 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."

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