Book review: The Curious Diary of Mr Jam, by Nury Vittachi

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 5:25pm

The Curious Diary of Mr Jam
by Nury Vittachi
Blacksmith Books


For the past two decades, Nury Vittachi has made light of life. He collected readers' jokes, highlighted funny signs, and made gentle, impish asides about issues ranging from the absurdities of Hong Kong to the age of China's gerontocracy.

Now a prolific author, syndicated columnist and a popular event speaker, Vittachi reprises his routine in his latest fiction. Drawn from the author's experiences, this initially entertaining novel relates a year in the life of the fictional Mr Jam, an out-of-work Hong Kong-based newspaper humorist who has to resurrect his career.

Survival on the scrapheap of Hong Kong journalism can be a nightmare for some writers, but not Mr Jam. He shrugs off the loss of his column and house-husband status with endearingly self-deprecating humour. His wife works, his children are sweet, and although there are bills, redundancy seems a minor inconvenience.

Predictably, Mr Jam lives in a "tee-hee" Hong Kong of cartoonish characters. He develops a new career: collecting online readers' jokes that he can mix with wry lists and further gentle, impish asides of his own. The Curious Diary seems aimed at a newer, younger audience. A Dictionary of Internet Terms for Elderly Asians, for example, describes a "Desktop Icon" as a "Buddha statue"; a "Laptop" as "Portion of your trousers stained by curry spills" and "RAM" as a "Dangerous sheep with horns".

Having enraptured Form 1 with such observations, Vittachi might captivate Form 3 by defining "Hard drive" as "Going all the way to town on a bullock cart", and have Form 4 rolling in the aisles by listing "Backup" as "What you were doing in the buffalo cart when you ran over a peon".

Day after day of The Curious Diary, Vittachi piles on his playground wit. He charms mums with his daughter's mis-spelt Santa request for a "compoota", and then switches to music-hall questions such as "How many Filipino premiers does it take to change a light bulb?"

By mid-April, the author's sparkling wit has become a jabber of inanity that blurs the novel and dilutes any discussion of humour in Asia into just another Vittachi anthology of meek second-hand jokes and sniggers. Some long-term readers might find 336 pages of non-stop Vittachi comedy sufficiently tortuous to justify Mr Jam's cover slogan: "Official humorist to repressive regimes".

Yet Vittachi has proven he speaks fluent "Teenager", in a nice, friendly way. The Curious Diary bombs as a novel, but, given the author's charm and the right marketing, the book should still sell well.