Inside the student politics bughouse

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Dominic Knight: Comrades. Random House, 2010. ISBN: 9781863256407. Online

Comrades, by Dominic Knight

University student unions are cesspools of toxicity, sociopathy and tedium. I should know — I'm a student politician.

Well, technically. Editing the student paper at my university counts me in attendance at Students' Council Meetings and requires my (admittedly amateurish) 'political negotiations' for preference deals around student election time.

Dominic Knight should also know, as a former editor of Sydney Uni's auspicious publication, Honi Soit. His second novel, Comrades, adds to the incredibly (and understandably) small canon of Student Union-themed literature. And although there is only so much student politics one can handle in a lifetime, reading it I couldn't help but think, He beat me to it.

And did it well. Unfortunately for former and future student paper editors who had plans to write this novel, I can't imagine the market for the genre could handle much saturation.

As you might expect from Knight, a Chaser original, satire takes centre stage in the novel. The characters, place and simple narrative are vessels by which Knight's droll one-liners are carried. Don't let this deter you — campus politics is a gold-mine (or rather, a land-mine) of hackneyed characters, and Knight's comedy works here.

Comrades traces the intensive period of student elections at a fictional 1999 Sydney Uni SRC from pre-selection to post-election, chronicling every drama in between: back-door wheelings and dealings, the trials of indeterminate electoral regulations, shit-sheets, and a guy whose election platform is playing 'Oh Yeah' by Yello.

For anyone involved in the process, student elections are utterly consuming. It's almost understandable that students do the insane things they do (think defamation, lying, backstabbing, harassment, intimidation and, occasionally, violence), thinking it will better their chances of winning an office-bearer or councillor position; the whole thing exists in a space-time vortex from which it apparently becomes impossible to remember the happenings and social graces of the real world. In his acknowledgements, Dom thanks 'the mysterious figure who dumped thousands of copies of our Honi edition that profiled the Union Board candidates in the Victoria Park pond, an act which tops even imitation as a sincere form of flattery'.

Comrades' characters are stereotypical hacks of varying denominations (if they didn't resemble real student politicians, this might have been a problem). Our hero is Eddie Gough Flanagan, the idealist Labor Left incumbent President of the SRC (who is 'hardly a member of the proletariat on whose behalf he liked to speak').

His faction's presidential candidate for the election at hand is Sunita, a machinist law student whose campaign strategy is 'Whatever it takes'. Sunita's equally ethnic, equally female ('This election is going to be run on identity') opponent is the lovely Pema, a half-Tibetan 'trottie hottie' who is far too human to survive the bughouse of student politics.

Minor but vital characters in the landscape of campus politics are Eddy's careerist Labor girlfriend Rosie, who recently moved on to Canberra to play with the big boys, as well as Sunita's boyfriend Chris, a National Union of Students hack who challenges Sunita's 'Whatever it takes' philosophy. A not-quite-a-Young-Liberal is also involved so as to pad his CV and better his chances of winning a Rhodes Scholarship.

One fabulous minor character is Fabian who appears on behalf of Resistance. He says 'Yay' and 'like' a lot. Knight describes the idea of a Resistance president thus:

Protesting against whoever was in power was in their DNA ... If Fabian was put in charge of the SRC, perhaps he'd develop a political auto-immune disease, and start organising rallies to protest against himself?

Much of the story takes place at the Mothership — the student sharehouse from which the campaign is run and where apparently half the Labor-Left caucus (who, 'being middle-class socialists, are a bit self-conscious about drinking chardonnay') reside. The place is a hotbed of hackery, but a fairly apt depiction of how students ought to live — well, those who don't need to pass their subjects to have a good time.

Knight's characterisations are at times unkind, but not undeserved. Many young people attracted to student politics are, like adult politicians, attracted to power. And when they manipulate others in an effort to assume power they, like everyone, open themselves to criticism. For the most part, students inhabit the economic and social peripheries, and in a time when most students need to balance work and study with their other responsibilities, and alongside the constraints of VSU, student representation is as relevant as ever.

Many of Comrades' characters are endowed with an unlimited sense of entitlement, but Knight allows each one to explain herself in her own words. And while sometimes he teeters on the verge, I don't think he quite falls into the kind of amoral cynicism that often surrounds discussion of 'young people who think they can make a difference'.

Knight's success is the balance he strikes between sardonic parody and a genuine reverence for those whose political conviction outweighs their pessimism. Comrades is a fine satire, and while it might only appeal to an exclusive band of campus politics survivors, it meets all expectations.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage edits the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago.

Topic tags: Dominic Knight, Comrades, Random House, 9781863256407, chaser, student politics



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Existing comments

Doesn't sound Catholic to me in any way. Why promote these kinds of books where Catholic teaching is so absent?
Trent | 10 September 2010

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