Biographies of even undisputed heroes can be problematical, not least because of the implication that history might turn on the actions of individuals rather than larger forces. The risk is compounded when, as in this case, a book comes with an introduction by the Dalai Lama, kind words from South Africa's Bishop Desmond Tutu and a jacket blurb comparing the subject's 'inspiring story' with the struggle of Mahatma Gandhi. Fortunately, Kohen's fine study of Carlos Filipe Ximenes (the 'Belo' would be added in honour of his godfather) is not hagiographic and contains ample evidence that the man was made as much by the times as by any inherent greatness.
Belo came from a family that was of chiefly descent but not well off. Their home was near the base of Mount Matebian, a spiritual heartland whose name means 'souls of the dead'. According to the author, 'There was never a time when Carlos did not go to church.' By the age of ten he would pretend to be a priest, peeling a grapefruit and fashioning it into a bishop's cap or standing on a rock and holding a 'service' for the children who came to listen. Belo entered a seminary in Dili at 14.
The bishop-to-be was studying in Portugal when the military dictatorship there was overthrown, and again when Indonesia invaded his country in December 1975. In 1983 he was appointed the head of East Timor's Catholics in 1983, replacing the feisty Monsignor Lopes who had been ousted because of pressure exerted on the Vatican by Indonesia. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Jose Ramos-Horta in 1996, and faced an Indonesian attempt to murder him with a poisoned cake (that killed the dog which ate it).
The Americans, according to Kohen, attribute Indonesia's 'sudden turnaround' on East Timor to Belo's refusal to meet President Habibie early in 1999: 'Habibie was said to have felt hurt by the rebuff and became determined to rid Indonesia of the East Timor problem'.
Arnold S Kohen, From the place of the dead - The epic struggles of Bishop Belo of East Timor, New York: St Martin's Press, 1999, 331pp, Hbk, ISBN 031219885X, Rrp AU$27.95
Robin Osborne (firstname.lastname@example.org) is media liaison officer at Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia.