East Timor: False starts

Funu: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta, 1987

  • East Timor, #1
  • Borrowed from SF Library
  • Rating: 2/5
  • Read: April 2017
  • Recommended for: Experts

The Crossing, Luis Cardoso, 1997

  • East Timor, #2
  • Borrowed from SF Library
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Read: April 2017
  • Recommended for: Exiles

Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles, and Secrets from Timor-Leste, Gordon Peake, 2013

  • East Timor, #5
  • Borrowed from SF Library
  • Rating: 2.5/5
  • Read: April 2017
  • Recommended for: Expositors

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Dublin, 2008

East Timor has had a rough go of it in the past fifty years. It was ruled by the Portuguese for several centuries, until it was essentially abandoned after Portugal’s carnation revolution in 1974. There were a few months of bitter political infighting among the Timorese, most of whom either wanted to become an independent nation or to continue living under Portuguese rule. Option C, becoming part of Indonesia, was less popular although it made some geographic sense (the island of Timor is split in two; the eastern half, colonized by Portugal, is East Timor, while the western half was colonized by the Dutch and is part of Indonesia). Independence won and East Timor became an independent nation in 1975…for nine days, until Indonesia violently invaded, with the support of the US and Australia (who were afraid of East Timor becoming a socialist country). East Timor remained occupied for nearly 25 years, during which time more than 100,000 Timorese people (upward of 10% of the country’s population) died, either due to violence or from hunger and illness related to the occupation. Finally, in 1999 the UN took over the administration of East Timor and facilitated the transition to independence in 2002. However, the UN had to send in peacekeeping troops again in 2006, and they remained until 2012. During that time there were assassination attempts on both the first two presidents: Xanana Gusmão (whose Timor Lives was on my original reading list but when it came down to it, even though he is a poet as well as a politician, I just couldn’t face a whole book of political speeches, no matter how rousing) and Jose Ramos-Horta, recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize and author of Funu: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor.

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Barcelona, 2008

Ramos-Horta’s book was published in 1987, at the mid-point of the occupation. It was intended to draw the world’s attention to the travesties occurring in East Timor, and it seems to presume a level of background familiarity that I, for one, absolutely lacked. Most of what I got out of the book came from Noam Chomsky’s introduction, after which the book’s readability took a serious nosedive. It’s full of sentences like “I was the FRETILIN leader who dealt with all the NGOs and the ICRC as well as the foreign press and governments” and “The MFA was invariably accused by UDT, FRETILIN, and APODETI of favoring one side or the other.” Sometimes these acronyms are used for several pages before the reader gets any explanation of what they are and what they stand for. I didn’t even make it to the Indonesian invasion (the first couple of chapters being devoted to the colonial history, Ramos-Horta’s personal history, the coup and the complicated political climate of East Timor in the 1970s).

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London, 2014

I moved on to Beloved Land, which was recommended by fellow around-the-world book blogger biblioglobal, who wrote a pretty complete review of it, so if you find mine lacking, go check that one out. Another good review and summary was published in the Australian Magazine The Monthly. I, however, did not get far enough into the book to write a very thorough review. Beloved Land, written by a Northern Irish author who spent several years as a foreign aid worker in East Timor, picks up the country’s story after its 2002 independence and explores the complex relationships that governed the various coups, assassination attempts, and their aftermath. It doesn’t assume as much prior knowledge about East Timor as Funu, but I found it deadly boring nonetheless. It was another morass of names and acronyms; this time they were at least given an introduction (and, being the same names and acronyms that cropped up in Funu, should have been at least passingly familiar to me) but it got confusing pretty quickly nonetheless.

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Barcelona, 2008

So I abandone it and turned with a mixture of relief and trepidation to The Crossing, my only Timorese novel. It was the most enjoyable read, and I managed to finish it, but it was ultimately forgettable. I mean that literally–I read it two months ago and I’ve already forgotten nearly everything about it. At the beginning the narrator crosses the channel between the island of Timor and an outlying islet; I remember this passage being beautifully written and somewhat magical and I had high hopes for the rest of the book. It proceeded to vacillate wildly between dull autobiography and apparent fantasy. Some of the names from Funu and Beloved Land are dropped into the narrative: We catch glimpses of future revolutionaries and politicians in their boyhood years, playing soccer or going to school, in a way that probably resonates a lot more with people who are actually from East Timor and to whom these names are much more familiar. They don’t figure into the story in any meaningful way, however, and for me, they just seemed like odd and abrupt additions. After his Timorese boyhood, the narrator goes to Portugal as a student and, while there, meets some other Timorese immigrants who let him sleep on their only bed when he can’t find his way back to his student housing. That is literally everything I remember from the book. Once again, Ann Morgan of A Year of Reading the World wrote a better review than I find myself capable of producing, so if you yearn for more information about The Crossing, have a look there. The Guardian published an even more in-depth review, which I found far more memorable than the book itself.

The best book I read dealing with East Timor and the Indonesian occupation was an Indonesian book called Jazz, Perfume, and the Incident. It’s a weird mix of essays, journalism, and fiction by Seno Gumiro Ajidarma, and I’ll post a review of it on Monday, so stay tuned.

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Ulldecona, Spain, 2008
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