Pilgrimage

I am not going to lie. I found Pedro Rosa Mendes’ book Peregrinação de Enmanuel Jhesus extremely challenging. Starting of course with the variation and density of language, which some Portuguese critics have compared with Faulkner.

I know what kind of reading experience I had, as a person who has spent a long time in archives, and time crisscrossing the east of Timor talking with people.

The novel is presented as a number of interweaving narratives by different characters – none of them Portuguese! – Rosa Mendes is very much at home playing with identity, perspective and the kind of (post)-colonial house of mirrors. At first I found none of his characters remotely sympathetic. But the book is not sentimental and it is certainly not about sympathy. A kind of self-destructive empathy perhaps. These are the kinds of relations, and the kinds of characters, that come from occupation(s).

But the sadism/masochism of outsiders, and of half-outsiders and corrupted insiders, is always balanced by some muted, intermittent yet insistent Timorese voices (my translation)

We are not fighting Indonesia, comrade Matarufa, not even the Suharto regime, we are fighting for a place in time, me, you, our people, something ours that comes in History. There are two frontlines: past and future, and we have to advance on both. Our struggle is a collective inscription. I am a guerrilla fighter of dream, and you are a guerrilla fighter of memory

For Rosa Mendes, Timor is the lack. It is something that cannot easily be recovered, like bones of a disappeared. This is not to say that Timor is impossible. It exists. (It exists?) But at this between moment, it is what isn’t. Timor is some stubborn, still to be substantiated memory.

In Portuguese, the word pilgrimage contains the word “nation”.

Not to give any spoilers, but as the book is so much about the way outsiders view Timor, a real tension builds: who we are meant to believe ‘edited’ and constructed the narrative of the novel, with its different voices and testimonies? Rosa Mendes leaves us hanging – but does not disappoint on this. (It may sound strange, but I was reminded of the conceit behind Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Indeed, this book is fiction and it feels “speculative”.)

At a meeting at work, I was reminded of an amazing nighttime dialogue in the garden of the Dili Diocese. Zooming in on Matebian on Google Earth I was reminded of another poignant scene in the book. The book has seeped into the flotsam and jetsam of my mind, kind of like a memory that you are not sure is yours, or if it was a dream and never happened at all. I will need to read it again, to substantiate it…

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