Action Figure

The origin of my long-neglected plan to review the complete works of various authors I’ve been reading this year was my discovery of a specific writer, and subsequent compulsion to read everything he’d written: four books you’ll have trouble finding together in a library or bookstore, but which deserve to be considered collectively.

I came across Robert Twigger’s third book, The Extinction Club, in a second-hand bookstore, and bought it on the strength of blurbs calling it a blend of travel, history, philosophy and humour; these are a few of my favourite things. The book lived up to the blurbs with its strange but fascinating knitting together of disparate strands. On the face of it, it’s natural history, of a kind that fills the non-fiction shelves nowadays: the story of a rare species of deer called Milu and the efforts of a missionary to smuggle it out of imperial China. But this somewhat thin premise is just part of it. The book starts with a modern-day hunting trip to bag one of those same deer. Within three pages we’ve learned that the hunt is a fabrication, and that the author is struggling to write as he sits in a room in Cairo. And so the real theme emerges: a postmodern dance around Twigger’s attempts to write about a marginal species and what it can tell us about history and the modern world. When we reach them, his thoughts about extinction are worth the wait; but by then we’ve been drawn down so many intriguing side-alleys that they’re merely one of the book’s attractions.

We end up knowing a fair bit about Twigger, too. In classic postmodern (and travel writer) style, the author inserts himself squarely into the narrative. By the end of its 180 pages I wanted to know more, so as soon as I could I tracked down another of his books.

Easier said than done. Twigger is shelved all over the shop: in the travel section, the sports section, and the general non-fiction section. I eventually relied on inter-library loan to bring them together, reading whatever turned up next in the queue of recalls. The first to arrive was his first, Angry White Pyjamas, which won the Somerset Maugham Award. It reminded me of another Maugham Award winner read years ago, Matthew Kneale’s Whore Banquets, in that both were about being a gaijin in modern Japan.

Angry White Pyjamas follows Twigger’s attempts to complete a year-long course of aikido training with the Tokyo Riot Police, which turns out to be as difficult and demanding as it first sounds, especially for a Westerner as unathletic as Twigger (which allowed me to read along with that all-important sense of identification). The contrast between the strict world of martial arts and the aimless lives of Twigger and his fellow expats makes for a classic fish-out-of-water tale, transcending the narrow focus on aikido training with its insights into Japan and the expat experience. By the end you’re fervently hoping for Twigger to succeed, and fervently hoping never to do the Tokyo Riot Police aikido course.

Beyond its specific subjects of aikido and Japan, Angry White Pyjamas is about questions so many of us ask ourselves as we approach or pass the age of thirty: how should we live? What’s our potential, and how do we live up to it? Twigger addresses them more directly in his fourth book, Being a Man ... in the Lousy Modern World, which brings together philosophical and autobiographical themes from all of his earlier works, framed by the birth of his child and memories of a teenage climbing accident which saw him spend months in a Fort William hospital. The book is impossible to encapsulate in a few lines, but certainly one of the better ruminations on manhood, adulthood, and contemporary Western life that I’ve read. It gains a lot, too, from being read after his earlier works; by this book, not only Twigger but other figures from his life, particularly his wife and his grandfather, were completely alive in my mind, as if I’d known them for years.

After Being a Man, his second book, Big Snake, was a slight anticlimax; it would have been better coming immediately after Angry White Pyjamas. I’d suggest you read all of them in chronological order if you can. Still, how can anyone not enjoy a story about the search for the world’s longest python? The search was Twigger’s own—he was attempting to win a big cash prize offered by a museum—and took him through the jungles of Borneo, in finest quest-driven travel-writing style. Shades of Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo, and of another excellent tale of Indonesia I’ve just finished, Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley (who deserves his own “complete works” round-up; his books on West Africa are absolute classics). Twigger lives up to their example, too, with some strong passages on the travelling impulse and on village life in the tropics.

Robert Twigger would make a good action figure: pumped-up torso from his year with the riot cops, an arm that aikido-punches when you push a button on his back, and a range of accessories—white pyjamas, poseable Milu, giant rubber snake, dusty books from a Cairo bookstand, and detachable foam neckbrace.

What I haven’t mentioned so far, which influences the flavour of all his tales of derring-do and exploring the boundaries of masculinity, is that Twigger first drew attention as a poet—and it shows. His four books of non-fiction are beautifully written, particularly in their more philosophical moments. So the Twigger figure would also need a string-pull that triggered a few lines of blank verse.