East Timor: travel books to read before you go

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This excerpt from Lonely Planet’s East Timor guide provides a selection of travel literature to get you in the mood for your trip.

There have been two spates of books about East Timor, one in the mid ’70s as the Portuguese departed and the Indonesians marched in, and one in the late ’90s as Indonesia smashed the place up and departed. It’s a remarkably narrow perspective. Books from either group will include a brief summary of the history of Portuguese Timor, from the arrival of the Portuguese right up to their departure four centuries later. The more recent books chronicle the chaos and violence leading up to the referendum, and its aftermath. What’s missing is the quarter century of Indonesian occupation, principally because most of what happened is unlikely to ever be revealed. Occasionally some outrage focussed international attention on East Timor, in particular the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991, but in general the horrors that went on within East Timor – the ‘encirclement and annihilation’ campaign, the ‘fence of legs’ campaign – were relegated to one-paragraph summaries.

The selection of literary works available is very limited, but one novel that covers this period is Timothy Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage, which was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize. José Ramos-Horta, East Timor’s second President and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has written that this novel captured the struggle with remarkable accuracy. Mo’s fictional country of Danu is clearly East Timor. Some of the places even have the same names and the same events – Australian journalists die in a place called Balibo during the invasion by the Malai (Australian journalists really did die in a place called Balibo during the Indonesian invasion). Other names have been changed – Baucau became Bacalhau (the Portuguese salted cod speciality!) and Bill Mabberly is clearly Roger East, who was indeed executed by the Indonesians during their horrific takeover of Dili. The long campaign against the Indonesians, in progress when the novel was published, is portrayed with heartbreaking and unflinching intensity.

Luís Cardoso’s The Crossing is a lyrical memoir of the author’s childhood and passage into adulthood, mainly in Portuguese East Timor. Cardoso’s gentle, descriptive style reveals a rich culture and a country reaching towards independence.

Norman Lewis’ travels in An Empire of the East take him to what are (in the early 1990s) Indonesia’s more remote and culturally diverse reaches – Aceh, Irian Jaya and East Timor. His travels around East Timor with his daughter are facilitated and enriched by Catholic priests and nuns and their pivotal place in local communities. Reminders of carnage, loss and destruction are all around, but Lewis’ entertaining style and observations are both informative and easily digested.

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More travel literature reading lists for other destinations can be found here.