(ISBN: 9781863256407: 2010)
Set in 1999, Comrades, Knight’s second novel focuses upon student politics at Sydney University from the perspective of outgoing student president Eddie Flanagan. As the Book Thingo review observes Comrades is so ‘tightly woven to its particular setting’ that it runs the risk of limited appeal. There is little doubt that there are in-jokes and references to events and people that non-Sydney alumni have no chance of discerning and the acknowledgments convey the impression that this book is a private amusement for Knight’s intimate friends.
Some may argue that the mid to late 1990s was a turbulent time in Australian tertiary education. The deferential HECs system was introduced and the spectre of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) loomed large. Both were seen as part of a legislative agenda to re-establish a tertiary education as a privilege for the elite. There is the delightful throwaway line, ‘The sad fact that most of the genuine members of the working class enrolled at the University of Sydney had no time for student politics. They were far too busy actually working.’ (p.4). My mouth quirked. Sydney Uni actually allows the working classes in?? Think not. It was amusing observing the characters ‘slumming it.’ The characters’ ‘working class’ posturing did little but reinforce my impression that Sydney University is a place for the wealthy, well connected and the international student.
Let there be no doubt that Knight shrewdly understands the mechanisations of student politics particularly as a prelude to a political career (proto-Sussex Street). Knight revels in the essential hypocrisy of the characters and their ideals. Despite this, we wonder to what extent Knight was influenced by the BBC series Party Animals.
Book Thingo questions how the issues date the book. VSU eventually passed and it certainly dates it but student politics has it constants: Free Tibet, rabid hatred of anyone associated with the Economics faculty and the paucity of the New Allowance. What certainly dates this book is the referencing to politicians that still loom large on the contemporary Australian political landscape, Abbott, Hockey,Turnbull and Howard but no reference to the man that had at least as many effigies of him as John Howard-Education Minister at the time David Kemp.
In the hedonistic haze of uni, some may find the budding romance between Eddie and Pema, the Left’s Presidential candidate, (or any other character pairing for that matter) rather chaste but politics not romance is the focus (as I read it anyway) of this book.
The cultural elites will be pleased that the dominance of the Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney triumvirate is assured for another generation. For if this book was set in a regional university where VSU was a more crucial issue and sans the Chaser connection it is doubtful it would have been published. Comrades is the perfect stocking filler for the Sydney student aspirant.