When, in the late 1970s, writer Nicholas Jose made frequent trips across the Hay Plains from Adelaide to Canberra , he was always intrigued by signposts that appeared about seven hours into the drive, signaling the way to The Walls of China.
The strangeness of seeing this name in the flat, Australian expanse registered in his mind, but with no particular resonance. It wasn't until 1991 - back in Australia two years after witnessing the tragedy of Tiananmen Square - that Jose journeyed back across the Hay Plains and turned off the highway to see where the signposts led.
Jose had been on many journeys in the previous 17 years - he had lived in Italy twice, gained a PhD in literature from Oxford, became a China scholar, a diplomat, a novelist. He had also learnt Mandarin, married, divorced, and gathered an eclectic, international circle of friends including Simon Schama, the distinguished historian and author of Landscape and Memory, and filmmaker Jane Campion, director of The Piano. He had written his luminous second novel, Paper Nautilus, in David Malouf's house in Italy in 1984, and his third novel, three years later, in China. This was the critically acclaimed Avenue of Eternal Peace (shortlisted for the 1989 Miles Franklin Award) which bore an uncanny relationship to the yet-to-happen events of Tiananmen Square.
"Nick Jose's strength, like G. E. Morrison's [an Australian-born authority on Asia at the turn of the century], is that he walks outside the walls of the foreign compounds, in the dust of the streets, in the bars, parks and back alleys ..." wrote author and diplomat Alison Broinowski in a review of Avenue of Eternal Peace.
Jose went to China in 1986 to teach literature and Australian studies in Beijing and Shanghai, meeting many Chinese artists, writers and dissidents. At the end of 1987, he was persuaded to become cultural attaché at the Australian Embassy in Beijing, a post he held for the next three, tumultuous years, during which his apartment in the diplomatic compound became known as "The Last Salon in Peking".
In Chinese Whispers, his book of cultural essays published in 1995, he describes the "drifting party" of intellectuals, artists and students - not all Chinese - who talked, drank and made and received international telephone calls in his flat until the tanks occupied the intersection below. A tank cannon was aimed at Jose's living room window at one point "and an officer shouted through his megaphone that we would be shot if we took photos. So the party moved to the other end of the flat, until the fridge was bare."
He helped a lot of people, although he says elusively, "There was nothing cloak and dagger." The Chinese, observant as ever of the art of ambiguity, gave him a Chinese name, Zhou Si (meaning "to think carefully"). "This person Zhou Si took on an existence quite beyond me," Jose says with amusement.
By the time he returned to Australia in 1991, Jose had already lived a novel, or several. But he still remembers being stunned the day he drove back across the Hay Plains and arrived at the lunar landscape known as Lake Mungo,a prehistoric, dry lake bed bounded on one side by a 24 km line of ancient, crescent-shaped white sand dunes. These Walls of China are spectacular, a mysterious landform sliced by the wind into hills and gullies, containing the bones and relics of the Aboriginal people who lived around the lake for thousands of years.
Lake Mungo, part of the Willandra Lakes region in far south-west NSW, is one of Australia's richest archaeological sites. In 1969, scientists discovered the 27,000-year-old human remains of Mungo Woman, followed, a few years later, by the 40,000-year-old skeleton of Mungo Man.
There was a standoff between Aborigines and scientists for years over the length of time the bones were kept in Canberra. In 1992, the remains of Mungo Woman were returned to the local Aboriginal community, while study of Mungo Man continues.
Jose was inspired to visit Lake Mungo by a friend, Australian artist Mandy Martin. As he stood in the sand dunes, memory and thought began to intertwine with the bigger questions about Australia that have long preoccupied him.
The result is The Custodians, his epic fifth novel (and eighth book), which follows the fortunes of a diverse group of people who end up in various powerful political, cultural and social roles in contemporary Australia.
There's a famous actor, a successful artist, an heiress seeking enlightenment, a Maoist who goes to live in China, a high-profile government policy adviser and an equally influential Aboriginal bureaucrat - "the scholarship boy", stolen from his parents as a child. The novel, which covers 30 years, doesn't fit easily into a genre: it deals with race, class, immigration, drug addiction, Aboriginality and land ownership and management. It also follows the lives and love affairs - both heterosexual and homoerotic - of the central characters, some of whom grow up, as Jose did, in Adelaide in the '50s and '60s.
The erotic and the homoerotic have always played a strong part in Jose's writing. "I'm interested in imaginatively trying things on, impersonating different kinds of people and different kinds of experience, but I'm also interested in people who do that in life, like actors, who will try on a kind of experience including a kind of sexuality," he says.
"There's that sense of putting yourself in other peoples' shoes, immersing yourself in them. You can't be pure or clean as a novelist. There's a poem W. H. Auden wrote where he talks about being just with the just, and with the filthy, filthy. That also becomes part of the writing for me."
But Jose is also an intellectual writer, as his close friend Ivor Indyk, editor of the literary magazine Heat and senior lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, points out. "He was one of the first intellectuals I know of to leave academia before the '80s [Jose taught literature at the Australian National University in Canberra], recognising there was a greater opportunity for intellectuals outside the university than within," says Indyk.
"His work reads like allegory, as if the fiction were developing an argument or a set of concepts. In The Custodians he's talking about the nature of cultural custodianship of Australia, and the way in which it may be in the hands of an elite group of people, but that elite is not as homogenous as it once was."
Jose, who now lives in Sydney, began writing The Custodians two years after that first visit to Lake Mungo. "I felt compelled to explore how, in the lives of our generation, a struggle was being waged to let in some of those greater, hidden energies to create a better Australian society," he says. "Who are the custodians of this land? Who is it in custody for? What is the cost of vision? I was also struck by the fact that some of the people I have known since I was quite young have become powerful creators of this society - whether in politics, business or culture - and this made a compelling fictional subject, too.
"I suppose what also happened is that the image of driving past on your own journey without knowing the significance of what you were turning your back on [a reference to the signposts], became then a larger symbol for me of the way white Australia in recent decades had turned its back on the Aboriginal presence so completely," he adds.
Jose begins the novel with the Adelaide group of friends as children watching an eclipse, and brings the book to its cultural and political climax over the fate of Lake Moorna, "a shallow basin, a saucer, a great flat dish of caked pink mud dotted with bluebrush and saltbush that stretched for miles into the distance. It was bounded by a shimmer of white, broken into bands and insubstantial, like a mirage."
Jose says the seeds of the novel were sown in 1988, after he had celebrated Chinese New Year at a city on the Chinese coast. "I'd eaten a bad tuna sandwich in the hotel before embarking on the long train journey back, and found myself feverish and ill for about 36 hours on this Chinese train ... it's often in those states that ideas come to you. The image of the eclipse came to me quite strongly, and also the image [in The Custodians] of the mother's death by drowning, and these both seemed to do with dimensions of death and darkness that had been excluded from the bright surfaces of life in Australia - particularly the kind of life in Adelaide in the '50s and '60s that I'd grown up in."
Jose was born in London to Australian parents; his father, an engineer, was born in Adelaide, his mother in Birchip, in country Victoria. The family returned to Adelaide when he was a small child, but old enough to remember his paternal great-grandfather, who'd been a missionary in China. Jose's grandfather was born in China, while his great-grand-father's brother, Arthur W. Jose, was one of the first people to write a history of Australia and was Henry Lawson's book editor at Angus & Robertson in Sydney.
There are parallels between the way Avenue of Eternal Peace seemed to anticipate Tiananmen Square and the way the imaginative Lake Moorna also becomes symbolic of contested prehistoric sites in Australia. "As a writer, I'm interested in feeling the latent possibilities in what's going on around me, and using imagination as a way of divining those things. It's as if only by freeing yourself into an imaginative realm, you can actually tap into those deeper currents, [those which] if you're right, will surface as reality," Jose says at one stage.
Our conversation takes place in the Surry Hills house where he lives. He says that he started pondering the custodianship of Australia while he was still in China. He adds that while China is and remains a major part of his life, "It's not China that I'm in now; it's this taking of things from China, from the East into Western context."
The theme of crossover runs like a current through all his work - as indeed, it seems to run through his life. His widely reviewed 1994 novel The Rose Crossing is a contemporary fable of East and West set on an island in the Indian Ocean in the 17th century. (Jose wrote his PhD thesis on 17th-century English political literature.) The book is about a meeting between a Ming prince and an English girl, and the breeding of a new kind of rose - botanical hybridisation becoming the controlling metaphor. The prince's sexuality is awakened when the English girl urinates in front of him, a detail which fascinated reviewers.
If Jose is not yet a celebrated literary figure in this country, in the sense that he doesn't attract the kind of fanfare that seems to be part of literary life these days, it's because he is the kind of person who keeps a distance, a man who keeps a part of himself separate. Says Ivor Indyk: "Nick is currently writing an essay on 'reticence' for Heat, and I think that's perfect. He has an air of reticence, of restraint. There's a moral dignity about him. It's a kind of self-effacement, a refusal to put himself forward, although there's a political dimension to his reticence - he has been a diplomat, and he's still, in a way, a diplomat. He stands between old Australia and new Australia, and he's one of the few figures who does that in an open way."
Jose fascinates because he carries with him the impression of otherness, a man who's at home in many different worlds. He's elegant, literary, funny, hugely interested in ideas and in people - he soaks things up, but he also doesn't give much away.
The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Susan Chenery once wrote that "those who know him say they don't really know him, that it takes years of accumulation of unguarded moments to piece together the dramas of his life". Jose has the erudite conversation of the scholar, the intense gaze and immersion of the novelist. In all the noise and crashing of plates in a Chinese restaurant where we go one day, he remains totally absorbed in the ideas he's discussing.
Simon Schama, Jane Campion and Scott Hicks, the writer/director of Shine, who grew up with Jose in Adelaide, are all quoted on the back cover of the English edition of The Custodians commenting about the novel. When I remark to Schama, on the telephone from New York, that, in a sense, The Custodians also deals with landscape and memory, he agrees, replying, "I was so fantastically insecure about the eccentricity of Landscape and Memory [published in 1995], and we talked about it a lot, so our mutual obsessions probably overlapped. Nick was making lots of trips to Lake Mungo. It's like Nick to take a tremendous amount of time brooding and then very economically employ it."
Jose comments: "What struck me about Landscape and Memory is that the first sentence refers to the role of fire in Australia, but I don't think Australia is mentioned again because the Australian landscape challenges Simon's basic thesis quite profoundly - the Australian landscape is not mapped by memory entirely or simply, and not our memory.
"His thesis is that any landscape is read and appreciated through the cultural and historical memory the people bring to it. That's true in Australia, but what are those memories? What is that history here? It's the Aboriginal history and memories, and maybe the presence of Asian visitors to the country from way back, and then it's layers of Europeans and others since, all in a complex and contested relationship.
"So that when you go out and look at Uluru, you're seeing something of a complexity and a scale that defies anything in Landscape and Memory - and that excites me.
In The Custodians, Jose draws on some of that cultural and historical memory, such as the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody - in particular, the compelling report by royal commissioner Hal Wootten into the death of Malcolm Smith.
Smith was an Aborigine who killed himself in prison in 1982 by ramming a paintbrush through his eye and into his brain. In The Custodians, Daniel, the prisoner brother of Cleve, the Aboriginal bureaucrat, does the same.
"I say quite clearly that [the novel] is a work of imagination but it draws on certain texts as a novelist's contribution to a larger debate," says Jose. "What I felt in reading those original documents, the power of them, is extraordinary. And it seems part of the responsibility of a creative writer to take that material and make it available in other ways to the widest possible audience. To ignore it or leave it out would be a far worse kind of silencing or omission than any attempt to incorporate it.
"Aboriginal history is everyone's history and needs to become everyone's history. [Professor] Henry Reynolds has the phrase 'the other side of the country', and it's as if to try to look at things as a whole, I had to recognise the other side of the country.
"I think the subject of Australia for a writer is an absolute gift," he says later. "I don't mean historical Australia necessarily, but contemporary Australia. The challenge is, how do you write about it?
"I think you need a strong realistic dimension, almost a social history, that looks at the facts of this country. But you also need a powerful poetic or symbolic dimension to encompass all those things there really haven't been words for, to somehow embrace all the different kinds of experiences the place offers."
He adds later, "I'm given to coincidences. But often with the coincidences there's something behind it, which is to do with the patterns you can't see straight up."
Ivor Indyk's comment about why Jose left academia returns to mind.
Jose says thoughtfully, "The universities have changed dramatically in Australia over the past 20 years. The kinds of imaginary scope that were there are not possible now. My choice was to get out. My interests and horizons had changed. And there's something about the kind of mind I've got - it isn't actually an academic mind although I've read a lot of books. I'm interested in ideas. I found great friction in my last two years of [teaching], both in the bureaucratic machine of the institution, but also with the way the intellectual life had become abstracted from reality."
And the literary world?
"I tend to keep a bit of a distance from the literary world," he replies. "I think for me as a writer, the two important things are to maintain independence and to keep growing, and I think to get too caught up is bad for both. That does need a degree of detachment - protecting the imaginative space.
"The world doesn't need another book, and I don't see the point, really, of writing another novel unless it's going to take the readers into new territory."