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THE WORLD of the Western ex-pat in Asia is ripe for fictionalisation. Yet it’s a terrain potentially prone to unpleasant stereotypes and its harsh realities of inequality and predation require a delicate and skilful touch.
Many of us have an image of the expat in Thailand or the Philippines as an older white male seeking an easy life of sun, sea, cheap beer and sex tourism.
In Foreigners, a sprawling satirical caper by long-time Philippines resident Ken Fuller, the image is reinforced though also undercut by characterisations that are sometimes sympathetic, sometimes repulsive.
Fuller’s novel is inhabited by a motley cast of middle-aged male expats who can’t stay out of trouble and their misadventures culminate in a battle against a rapacious US corporation, in which the anti-heroes become the unlikely allies of the exploited Filipinos.
In this shaggy-dog story about men of a certain age and outlook, former London copper Clive Barker — a particularly well-drawn study of a hopeless loser looking for redemption while leaving chaos all around him — keeps company with a shady Australian yachtsman, an American ex-cop, a farmer from Ohio, a self-doubting New Zealand poet and a dope-smoking Englishman, among other minor no-gooders.
Fuller draws us into a world of beach bars, sleazy hotels and uneasy relations with locals, including greedy businessmen, wily politicians, soldiers and long-suffering girls. Tensions can explode at any time and often do, literally.
There’s some skilfull comedy, with laugh-out-loud scenes involving escapades on boats and comical chases. Yet there’s also a significant amount of political economy, which doesn’t always aid the reader’s journey — Fuller has also written books on modern Philippines history and politics.
The episodic plot involves mysterious bombings carried out by some Westerners, investigated by Filipino cop Miraflores but we have to wait more than half way until that more promising thriller element comes into focus.
If this were Le Carre, the terror attacks would seamlessly link up with the dastardly US economic plan, ingredients that would come together like a perfect meal. Here it’s a pub crawl without a map.
There’s a lot of dialogue, some of it lively and amusing, much of it incidental, and detailed descriptions in minor scenes that seem to roll into each other, their significance to the story hard to fathom.
More seriously, minor Filipino characters are sketched in as “brown skinned” or, in the case of Filipino women, “slender” with “pleasing smiles.” The objectifying Western male gaze is at times excruciating. “She was not, he thought, beautiful,” comments the American ex-cop, “and she was carrying a little weight around the mid-riff... But her evenly proportioned brown face was the cutest he had seen in a long while.”
This kind of crude sizing-up tends to undercut any sense of empathy with the Filipinos whose fate we are asked to care about, while the bewildering cast of Anglo-Saxon ne’er-do-wells expands as the book progresses, spreading our attention confusingly among interchangeably unlikeable blokes.
The absence of any fully characterised Filipino, including Miraflores, along with a dearth of significant female characters is a missed chance to explore this setting in a way that challenges the world views of its Western male protagonists.
Foreigners is like being in a bar you can’t remember arriving at, where you have lost the will to leave. The company is unsavoury but, after a few beers, you realise you’re stuck with them until the end.
Independently published and available in hardback, price £12.72 and as an ebook, £2.36.
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