White man’s law

The Legal Labyrinth is a promised land of alliteration. It provides an account of the author’s experiences writing another book, Our Man K.

The ‘Kisch’ case, about a Czech who jumped ship in Melbourne, is examined in part 1. Kisch’s story is the focus of Our Man K. A depressing symmetry is evident between the arbitrary decision-making in the migration jurisdiction of 1934 and now. Kisch was a Czech journalist, born in Prague on 29 April 1885, who arrived in Australia in November 1934. As a requirement for his visa, Kisch sat a dictation test in a European language. By decision of a departmental officer under the then Immigration Act 1901 (Commonwealth), he was required to sit a dictation test in Scottish Gaelic. He took his case through the court system and the High Court ultimately held that Scottish Gaelic was not a European language and the test was invalid. Hasluck draws out well the contemporary themes of arbitrary and unjust decision-making in the application of migration law.

Part Two is a day-to-day account of the author’s experiences travelling in Vietnam for about one month. I read this at about the same time I attended a play called Vietnam: a psychic guide. The insightful playwright and actor Chi Vu noted:

Some travellers go to exotic places to pretend that people do not suffer deeply from their poverty and that they do not at times cheat and lie to try to escape it. Some people travel to let go of understanding what’s happening around them, to be as nude and deluded as children. It is easy to watch them walk with an air of stupidity about them, smiling at everything. There are those who travel to exotic places to feel sorry for the natives I wonder whether there is a sense of those travellers in Hasluck? For example:

We are approached, then pursued, by a small posse of grubby, half-naked street urchins. These are not just persistent hawkers of the kind we have become accustomed to in Hanoi, street kids on the make, but good-humoured; here we are confronted with the outstretched hands and the feral looks of the outcast.

Does he lean towards the first category? Part Two is the weakest part of the book, reading largely like a series of postcards written to a person he doesn’t know very well. It lacks depth, insight and reflection. That said, he uses the words ‘I feel like a character in a novel’ in the introductory words to Part Two.
Perhaps his observations are intended to read as those of a character in a book who has no capacity for reflection?

In Part Three, Hasluck enters the realm of fiction. It takes me back to memories of third year law school. He refers to the introduction to Bleak House by Dickens, read out ominously in my first dispute resolution and legal ethics class by Chief Justice Phillips of the Supreme Court of Victoria. The false distinction lawyers are required to draw between feeling, fact and fiction is apt: ‘The law tries to measure intent, but it cannot measure what you might call the swerve, or the inclination of the soul.’

If you have an eye for the world of possibility presented by every unread book, I recommend exploring this labyrinth. You never know where this ‘choose your own adventure’ in three parts might take you. ?

The Legal Labyrinth, Nicholas Hasluck.
Freshwater Bay Press, 2003. isbn 1740082400, rrp $24.95

Eliza Bergin is a lawyer with the Office of Chief Parliamentary Counsel (Victoria).



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Like Attenborough

  • Juliette Hughes
  • 15 June 2006

Watching Attenborough in his second series of The Life of Mammals  I couldn’t help noting that tinge of sadness in him; he knows the fragility of what he shows us.


Film reviews

  • Brett Evans, Juliette Hughes, Siobhan Jackson
  • 15 June 2006

Reviews of the films Japanese Story; Gettin’ Square; 28 Days Later and Matchstick Men.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up