Colonised by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, Timor Leste (East Timor) declared independence in November 1975 under the leadership of the left-wing FRETILIN party. Just nine days later it was invaded and occupied by Indonesia. Sharing a border on the island of Timor, the Indonesians feared the rise of a communist state within the south eastern Asian archipelago. Whilst condemned by the UN, the invasion was supported by the west.
Narrated by Adolphe Ng, a fictional The Redundancy of Courage is firmly based on events following the invasion and occupation. But this is no overtly political discourse.
Chinese, gay and Canadian-educated, Ng is an outsider on the island. Even his future, the opening of a beachside hotel, is isolated at the edge of town. Yet the worldly and essentially apolitical hotelier is, to some extent, accepted by the young radicals and intelligentsia who meet in the cafes of the Praca in the capital.
But the invasion changes everything. Told in three parts, Ng’s narration is one of survival.
As an outsider, it’s his friendships with the ardent, political Rosa and the strident Maria, doctor to the poor, who draw him into the cause immediately post-independence. But he remains more of an observer – it’s not his cause. Even after the invasion, with his hotel commandeered by the malais (Mo never refers directly to Indonesia), Ng looks to survive. He becomes nothing more than a servant in his own business, always fearful for his life (the occupation of Timor Leste was marked by violence and brutality).
Ng’s sense of detachment and judgement at this juncture is verging on unpleasant. His disdain of the Timorese and life in Timor Leste is patronising, to say the least. Yet he becomes drawn more and more into the conflict, with that sense of detachment creating a seemingly more balanced perspective of events.
From the hotel to the jungle, from servile to freedom fighter and back to servile, Ng depicts the struggles of the Timorese against the occupiers. But the resistance is not presented simply as a heroic struggle – Timothy Mo is unflinching in presenting flawed heroes and resistance fighters, balancing bravery with foolhardiness, ruthlessness with sensitivity, joy with desperation, loyalty with betrayal.
Resistance for Ng ultimately accounts for nothing (hence the title) but The Redundancy of Courage is a powerful, at times harrowing, novel. The meat of the novel, the extended period when Ng finds himself as a member of the guerrilla army hiding in the interior of the island, is a gritty, detailed (if somewhat dense) page-turner.
It took Indonesia almost 25 years to relinquish control of Timor Leste. The Redundancy of Courage covers the first few years of this occupation. With the exception of the mention of the murder of five Australian journalists (the Balibo 5), the novel never directly names places, political parties or people (Timor Leste itself is Danu, FRETILIN becomes FAKOUM). As a result, whilst specific to Timor, The Redundancy of Courage is a universal story of unequal conflicts, of bullying military tactics. But it’s also a deeply personal story – of one man’s courage in the face of adversity, but whose courage shifts and turns in order to survive.
The Redundancy of Courage was Timothy Mo’s fourth novel and third to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It lost out in 1991 to Nigerian author Ben Okri and The Famished Road.