Timothy Mo doesn't hang about. His new novel – his first for more than a decade – dumps the reader straight into the world of Snooky, a Muslim born in "198-" and named Ahmed, now a Thai ladyboy and award-winning film critic for the Siam New Sentinel, who refers to herself in the third person, a habit that she brought to English from Siamese. It's one of the novel's innumerable instances of east-west imbrication and exchange. In Mo's analysis, there's no such thing as racial or ideological purity. As Snooky points out, even the western is pretty eastern.
Mo has all kinds of name-dropping, word-playing fun with Snooky in her gossipy, metropolitan mode. Among the judges of Snooky's awards is Saoul Bello, a Filipino academic who made his name for his anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. An "acerbic" theatre critic is said to leave "no turn unstoned". A man is said to strangle himself with "the very effective ligature electric flex makes, if you're ever thinking of shuffling off this mortal, uh, coil". But Snooky's age of freedom and self-realisation – and her monopoly of the narration – comes to a sudden end after she is enlisted to be a mole in an Islamist college, where her "Insert penis here" tattoo is removed with acid.
At this point, the novel, while retaining its fruity juxtapositions, mutates into a spy thriller, with all the necessary code-names and passwords and double-crosses – and a novel of ideas, the ideas being theological as well as cross-cultural. The dream of Snooky's new leader, Shaykh, and his co-conspirators is to establish a "pan-Islamic republic or theocracy across all the existing national frontiers of south-east Asia". There is some debate about the details. One of Shaykh's underlings, the Imam Umar, who feels unfairly passed over for leadership by the Saudi backers, writes that he would have been happy "if Narathiwat, Jala, Singgora, and Pattani were conjoined to Kelantan in the manner of the old Sultanate and we left it at that".
Despite her situation, Snooky manages to sees pop culture everywhere. Umar's insistence that Snooky and the others study not just the "Commentaries on the Holy Book" and "the Commentaries on the Commentaries", but "the Commentaries on the Commentaries on the Commentaries", makes her think of Phil Spector. Haji Tariq, another of the men fighting for the caliphate, is described as "Scheherazade meets Peter Sellers". Snooky certainly succeeds in her aim of putting the "fun" in "fundamentalism".
Behind Snooky's mission – and another of her fellow narrators – is Victor Veridian, an elderly don and sometime acquaintance of E M Forster and C P Snow and J H Plumb, who teaches at an invented Oxford college (Brecon), which counts among its patrons an unusually high number of Oriental despots and dictators. If Snooky ("the asset") provides our eyes on the ground, then Victor provides the bigger picture, the intelligence, explaining, for instance, that the south-east, far from being a quiet corner of the world for the past 35 years, has been a sanctuary, a holiday-camp, a conference room for "the most extreme kind of zealot".
Victor's crustiness in a modern environment, like Snooky's irreverence in an Islamist one ("They embraced. The hooks patted each other's back"), provides rich opportunities for Mo's wit. "I have always preferred," he tells the reader at one point, "the old-fashioned term 'drunkard'. Alcoholic makes it sound like an achievement and alcoholism a branch of knowledge."