"I am drawn to flawed characters and accidental heroes"
Professor Marco Lobo, an academic and author with deep family ties to Macau, will attend The Script Road – Macau Literary Festival to talk about his most recent novel “Mesquita’s Reflections”
Your most recent novel, the one set in 19th-century Macau, focuses on a very polarising and controversial figure, Macanese army soldier Vicente Nicolau Mesquita, who historically has been seen as a hero or a villain depending on who’s perspective we consider. How would you describe him and what made you write about his life?
Most things I’ve read about him painted him as being a conflicted soul ― tortured by his own demons that eventually took control of his psyche, ending his life in tragedy. I describe the young Mesquita as a typical Macanese (multi-racial like myself), and the older one as a self-delusional wretch (hopefully not like myself). I am drawn to writing about flawed characters and accidental heroes. He played a pivotal role in a ‘perfect storm’ that involved Portugal’s political ambitions and China’s military weakness, fuelled on both sides by a collision of cultures.
The novel in a large part deals with the events leading up to the assassination of Governor Ferreira do Amaral, himself a very polarising figure in Macau’s history. What made you choose Mesquita instead of Amaral as the main character of your novel?
In truth, I never really considered Amaral as the central figure of the story. The actions he took, things that resulted in his assassination, were catalysts to what I saw as the ‘real’ story; Mesquita’s foray into China and unexpected military success.
Your novel was originally published in English and will now be released in Macau with both Chinese and Portuguese translations. Do you expect it to be received basically in the same way by local Chinese and Portuguese readers?
My hope is that readers of any background will be interested in the unfolding of a historical tale ― more of an adventure story. I have written from the viewpoints of several characters of both cultures without the intention of delivering a message. In an earlier version, I began the novel from the point of view of Mesquita’s statue, observing the crowd as tensions rose and then the crowd tore it down. That approach, I felt was taking it further into the politics of the time than I wanted to go. I describe the events of 1966 at the back of the novel, as more of an epilogue.
Tell us about the sources you used for the research of this novel. Were you surprised by any particularly intriguing facts you learned during the process?
The most challenging thing was attempting to be historically accurate, particularly in depicting the attack on the Chinese fort. I read several accounts of the battle, none of which gave enough detail for me to write about it. The sources I relied on therefore, were on things such as military history, weaponry, tactics and also construction methods of Chinese fortifications. Not so much a surprise, but following a historical thread in terms of changing political and cultural attitudes over a couple of centuries was quite an eye-opener. For instance, the timing and motivation of erecting both Mesquita’s and Amaral’s statues, and the same situation for the destruction of Vicente’s statue in 1966 and removal of Amaral’s in 1992.
In the novel, you describe the city of Macau where immoral practices such as the collies and the opium trade are widespread. Nevertheless, one has the impression that the condemnation of those practices is somehow just moderate in the book. Is it like Macau had no alternative than to become a sin city?
I have chided myself over not having been more forceful in the condemnation of coolie trading and slavery. However, as a backdrop for the sake of storytelling, I relied on those nefarious elements quite strongly. Describing a peaceful, calm Macau, inhabited by good Catholics and a harmonious population would, I think, have been misleading.
The Catholic Church, represented by Bishop da Mata, disapproved of Amaral’s policies, as they were affecting their plans in China. In fact, a peaceful relationship between the Portuguese and the Chinese was considered as essential for the Church’s expansion in China, and your novel occasionally suggests that Bishop da Mata was prepared to do whatever necessary to remove Amaral from power. Yet, that conspiracy narrative line was not fully explored in the book. Do you believe that Governor Ferreira do Amaral was killed just due to the impatience of his many enemies?
That’s an interesting possibility, but supporting that narrative would have further complicated an already complex theme. The fact that Amaral’s replacement, Pedro Alexandro da Cunha lasted little more than a month in his post also raises some intriguing possibilities, and in fact is a subject I deal with in my current work-in-progress.
You use Mesquita’s thoughts and reflections to compare Governor Amaral to Cervante’s immortal hero D. Quixote de la Mancha; and then you stress a significant difference between them: instead of fighting imaginary enemies, Amaral underestimated the power of the real enemies he had created. Was he delusional and totally out of touch with reality – in the novel you even have Bishop da Mata performing an exorcism on him – or was he consciously seeking a tragic destiny, due to feeling deeply distressed about the decline of Portugal as a world power?
I saw Amaral as a man deluded by his self-perception; a conquering hero whose ambitions were thwarted by the realities of his situation. If not killed, he might well have been the one to attack Baishaling Fort, and perhaps not as successfully, but who knows? That Hong Kong had been ceded not long before, only made it more urgent for him to prove that Portugal could do the same with Macau. The Cervantes reference was more in terms of Mesquita being the bumbling sidekick.
Ferreira do Amaral’s statue, which stayed in front of Hotel Lisboa until the early 90s, was shipped to Portugal following a decision of the Portuguese authorities, who feared it would be destroyed if left behind. In fact, they believed it would meet a similar fate as Mesquita’s monument, in Senado Square, which was removed from its location by protesters during riots in 1966 against the Portuguese Colonial Government. Were both actions inevitable, given what Amaral and Mesquita represented in Macau’s history? How do you think multi-cultural societies such as Macau should deal with these kinds of historical taboos?
If not destroyed, it certainly would have been the subject of unwanted protest. In some ways, similar to the current controversy that surrounds US Confederate statues in southern US states ― symbolism that some see as insensitive and hurtful. There must be dialogue and engagement that will lead to understanding, ultimately to allow different cultures to not just coexist, but to be embraced by all inhabitants.
Have you been following the social and political evolution of Macau since the handover in 1999? Any reflections you wouldn’t mind sharing with us?
Living in Japan I have followed Macau’s changes as a distant observer. As part of China, the focus has transformed from Macau as an independent territory where citizens strove for their own hopes and dreams, to what China’s plans for it are, which are not so clear to me. But anyone can see the economic changes that have come from gambling licences and China’s playground; certainly that has brought financial benefits, but at the same time the image of a ‘sin city’ has become more prevalent.
Your Portuguese family roots have always been present since the first stages of your career as a writer. Before “Mesquita’s Reflections”, you published your first novel set in 16th-century Goa, during the days of the Inquisition, and more recently you released a collection of short-stories about the introduction of Christianity in Japan, also during the 16th century. Tell us about these two books, and the rationale and the planning behind their publications. Will Portuguese-related subjects keep a central role in future projects?
I will continue to draw on my Portuguese roots for inspiration, but also my Chinese roots as well as Scottish ancestry. The “Witch Hunter’s Amulet”, set in Goa was about hypocrisy and a sense of entitlement of colonial powers. A common theme in all my writing explores the role of religion as well as the role of technology; early technology being superior weaponry, ships and navigational devices and the role they played in subjugating societies with more primitive forms of them.
You are the grandson of the late Pedro José Lobo, a legendary figure in Macau’s 20th-century history. How do you remember him? And, again, himself a controversial figure – for many, the de facto Governor of Macau throughout three decades – how would you describe his role in the history of this territory?
I remember my grandfather as a kind and generous man. I never saw him as a politician or businessman, but even as children we recognized that he was something special. Listening to stories about him and his influence, I think he brought something special to Macau much in the same way that early settlers with means and intelligence bring to a new place they want to call home i.e. working to build it as a good place for future generations.
He was an intriguing combination of civil servant, businessman, powerbroker, artist and philanthropist, eventually accumulating functions that today would be considered incompatible. In that sense, would you say he was a product of his time?
I believe he was a man that did things because he saw a need for them to be done. In writing, I’ve explored the issue of colonial governors being ineffective, seeing their roles as temporary, as stepping stones to better things, as care takers. He was a product of his time because he stepped into a power vacuum, something which may not have been possible if stronger government had existed.
If there’s something missing in Macau’s literary production, it’s a biography of your grandfather. Yes, he was impressive enough to apparently inspire Ian Fleming’s novel “Goldfinger”, but unfortunately no serious and well-researched work about him has been published yet. Have you ever considered doing it?
Yes, I have considered it and that may be on the horizon. However, he was a very private man and I’m not sure he would approve. It is a project I would have to discuss with my very large family, and to get their agreement.
A word also about your father, Sir Roger Lobo, who helped found Cathay Pacific airline and led for many years the Urban Council in Hong Kong. It’s fair to say he was a bit like his father, a sort of unsung hero of Macau’s recent history? How would you like to see him being remembered here?
As with my grandfather, my father was a very private individual. He did things for the good of his family and for society rather than for self-enrichment, which he had ample opportunity for and declined. Both of them left us a family name that I hope my generation and the next ones will uphold, and in that way perpetuate their memories.
Going back to you, how did a Business and Economics University Professor become an author of historic novels? Had you previously had any particular experiences that encouraged you to start publishing your writings?
My parents were storytellers, telling us of their lives and ancestors, tales of wartime and often reading stories to us kids. I did the same with my children and I suppose the natural progression from there was to put pen to paper.
In as many genres as you may want to mention, who have been the writers that have most inspired you? Any favourite Chinese, Portuguese and Macanese authors?
In terms of Portuguese authors, I would have to mention Jose Saramago first, his writing has a magical dream-like quality. As for rollicking historical fiction, I like James Clavell. British novelist Hari Kunzru is also quite a favourite, as is Joanne Harris for her wonderful descriptions of food. The Chinese writer A Yi, is an entertaining writer, as is the Chinese-American Li Yiyun. So many, too many to mention.
What does it mean for you to have your novel “Mesquita’s Reflections” translated to Chinese and Portuguese, and to attend the Macau Literary Festival where those editions will be released?
I am thoroughly thrilled and honoured to be part of it. To have the opportunity to be able to reach Chinese and Portuguese readers with my stories is an inspiration for me to continue writing for them.