Subject: Times [London]/E.Timor: The long shadows of occupation

The Times (London) July 19, 2000, Wednesday

The long shadows of occupation

By: Sam Kiley


A Story of East Timor

By Luis Cardoso

Granta, Pounds 9.99

ISBN 1 86207 352 X

Pounds 8.99 (free p&p) 0870 160 80 80

For a brief few moments East Timor flickered across our television screens and took up temporary residence in our consciousness, and we were horrified that the Indonesian army could be so nasty to those nice looking people. As curry lovers, we wondered about what they ate at home and puzzled over why, if they were on the other side of the world, so many of them had Latin-sounding names like Jaime, Manuel and Xavier?

Then, at the end of East Timor's nightmare, the images faded, to be replaced with the occasional report on jungle clashes high in the mountains of the peninsula. And we all forgot about East Timor, again. When Luis Cardoso's father left East Timor, before the end of the nightmare, he made the crossing to Portugal determined to demand his rights from the "mother" country as one whose life was defined by Portugal's colonial occupation.

His son, trapped in Lisbon when his country collapsed into civil war at the end of Portuguese rule in 1975 and forced to hear of the agonies of Indonesia's 24-year occupation as an exile, draws on the life of his father and his own experiences to try to fix East Timor in his own mind. Untimely ripped from home and forced to live the life of an alien in the host country, exiles suffer most from the fear that they will lose their grip on the realities of their original lives.

In his memoir, Cardoso tries to bring his own youth back to life, just as his father makes his final crossing to death. It is a pity we did not get hold of The Crossing before the Australian-led United Nations invasion in support of the East Timorese vote of self determination. First published in 1997 in Portuguese, now lovingly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Cardoso's book fleshes out those flickering figures on our television screens.

His father, a nurse, toiled all over the country saving lives, using science but keeping the demons of the nether world in check. At times the memoir veers into magical realism as the native and settler peoples of East Timor, who first came together five centuries ago, lurch into one another through their cruel histories. Settled by Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch and squabbled over by all three, East Timor has rarely had the chance to settle down to being itself.

Men like the Josi Alexandre ("Xanana") Gusmco, a friend of the author's who went on to lead guerrillas against the Indonesian occupiers and now runs the country, never had the chance to avoid collisions with the history. And in his dotage, neither did Cardoso's father, who learned English from Australian commandos fighting the Japanese on East Timor. He cherished the dream of meeting the commandos and fulfilling his mission to "collect an old debt". But he died before boarding a plane to Sydney - ignorant that a few years later the descendants of those commandos would land in Dili and pay him back, one hopes, by ending East Timor's battles with history.

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