I don’t know why but ever since I decided to read a book from each country in the world, I was ever so fascinated by East Timor. I had never even heard of a country named East Timor (or West Timor, or any Timor for that matter) and I was pretty convinced it would be next to impossible to find any sensible translation in English. I imagined it an ex-Soviet republic and I almost felt the anti-Soviet propaganda slowly enveloping my mind. You can hardly imagine my excitement when I found The Crossing on Amazon. Of course, it was a hard copy and of course Amazon insisted on charging me more for packaging and transport than the actual novel cost, but I was so, so happy when I found it tightly squeezed in my tiny mailbox that the difficulties didn’t matter. My best friend was with me at that time and I literally felt the urge to tell her to just leave and let me drift off with The Crossing. The feeling was even better than getting that guy after 8 months of desperate pursuit only to realize he wasn’t that great actually.
It was actually better than getting the guy. There is always that bitter disappointment when you get what you want and it turns out to be so mediocre, either because of your high expectations, or because it really is so mediocre. Not the case with The Crossing. First of all, I had to face the fact that I (and everyone else I talked to) was utterly confused. East Timor is NOT an ex Soviet republic. East Timor is a country that shocked the world by declaring itself a sovereign state in 2002 – after being a Portuguese colony for four centuries and after being occupied by Indonesia for more than 20 years. Most of the population is rural and living on the edge of poverty. The literacy rate is around 58%, an enormous improvement as the illiteracy stood at 95% at the end of the Portuguese rule. Spoken languages include Portuguese, Indonesian English and Tetum. East Timor is one of the two predominantly catholic countries in Asia. Interestingly, Timor derives from the Indonesian word for “east” so the country’s name is actually East East. Given all of the above, I was quite shocked to learn that the GDP growth of East Timor was among the highest in the world for last year.
All of this trivia aside, East Timor is a country of extremes and a country of transitions. Its search for a national identity is beautifully accounted for in Luís Cardoso’s The Crossing: A Story of East Timor. The destiny of the country is mirrored through the destiny of the little boy, who is forced to leave in exile from his home for a large part of his life. As Takas (his nickname) crosses from childhood to adulthood, from Dili to Lisbon, from life to death, so does East Timor cross between Portuguese and Timorese, between tolerance and repression, between occupation and freedom. East Timor through the eyes of an author that clearly adores it, seems an exotic land, where the magical rituals still prevail over the rational thinking. A place of constant clashes and rebellions, which however managed to preserve hope and happiness in its people. A beautiful land that is just waiting for its chance to flourish beyond colonialism and oppression. And brave people, who refuse to abandon their dream for a free and independent state.
Who might have expected that anything with a literary quality can actually emerge from a state such as East Timor. And yet, as Cardoso raises many questions about cultural dislocation and exile, I cannot help but feel that however much the Timorese have gained from their independence, we, the developped world, have gained even more. A door to an unknown world has been opened to us, a world of many untold stories and unlived lives, a world exuberant and vivid waiting to manifest itself to the rest. A world that has been oppressed for too long and is now dying with impatience to show us what we have missed on. Our single story is no longer single – it is global. There lies the power of literature and there lies the reason I sometimes prefer a good book to a good person – for a good novel touches us with a brush so gently we almost can’t feel it. And yet afterwards something is irrevocably changed. For the better.