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Nicholas Jose: a note on The Idealist

Acclaimed novelist Nicholas Jose reflects on The Idealist, his first novel in almost two decades. Set during the independence movement in East Timor at the turn of the century, it continues the themes of his previous novels in exploring Australia’s place in the world in times of conflict, and the changes wrought in the lives of individuals who are impacted by them. The Idealist was released in September 2023.

This one has been a slow burn. I still have the vinyl record of the Fretilin song we sang along to in Canberra backyards in the late 70s. In 1998-99 I was obsessive about following the events leading up to East Timor’s independence referendum, trying to decode what was being said and done. Then I happened to be in Washington DC for Shock and Awe, the attack on Saddam Hussein. We were told to get anti-radiation tablets just in case. We found one of the last available packs in a neighbourhood pharmacy in Georgetown. In the end it wasn’t needed but I keep it as a souvenir. I saw at close hand then the difficulty for Australia in supporting a powerful ally when our interests diverge. It got me thinking. There were more questions than answers about East Timor and the story just kept growing. 

A lot has been written about East Timor and Australia’s role in what happened – evidence of a guilty conscience. But very little fiction. Timothy Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage fictionalises the events of 1975 when Indonesia invaded. His wonderful narrator Adolph Ng gives us one of the great quotes: ‘There’s no such thing as a hero – only ordinary people asked extraordinary things in terrible circumstances – and delivering.’ Luís Cardoso’s The Crossing is another fine book. As Jill Jolliffe says in her foreword: ‘There are many crossings…’. Not everyone is an idealist, but some are. It’s a story I couldn’t let go. 

I’m interested in what happens when the world challenges our deepest attachments, as is the case with Jake and Anne in The Idealist. Another novel that inspired me was Giorgio Bassani’s The Heron in which the protagonist drives through his watery region of Italy trying to piece things together. I transpose that driving to places that are familiar to me, in the Adelaide Hills and on the peninsula further west. Where do those winding roads begin and end? Simple enough, but complicated by curves of time and space. 

Timor-Leste celebrated its twentieth anniversary as an independent nation in 2022. A new generation is writing their story now, with the future as a destination for hopes and dreams. It can be a happier ending. Let’s help with that. 

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