It is a great thing when you discover an early and long unpublished novel by a writer you like in other genres. Malcolm Muggeridge is, I think, the supreme memoirist of the 20th century. I liked all his journalistic books. A few years ago I came upon a 1987 edition of an early novel, Picture Palace, which he had written in the 1930s. It was a satire of the famous Manchester Guardian editor CP Scott and had been suppressed as libellous.
The satire on Scott had elements of brilliance and was pretty savage, but overall I was disappointed. It was a poor novel.
I underwent a similar but more intense experience when reading The Bandar Log, the long suppressed novel by Alan Reid. Reid wrote this story of the great Labor Party split in 1958 but court actions prevented its publication.
The hugely enterprising and wholly praiseworthy Connor Court publishers brought it into print based on the manuscript Ross Fitzgerald came upon when writing his biography of Reid. Fitzgerald has done a service to history here.
Reidy was a great friend to me many years ago. Tony Abbott, in the book’s foreword, describes him as “the Paul Kelly of his day”. That’s a generous compliment but not quite right as Alan didn’t attempt anything like Kelly’s policy analysis. John Howard made a similar comparison in nominating Reid and Kelly as Australia’s two great political storytellers. Alan wrote two journalistic books about John Gorton and one about Gough Whitlam. They were fantastic.
The Power Struggle, about how Gorton came to office, was my first Australian political book. It read like a John Buchan thriller: great action, great pace, the story racing forward in vivid incidents, all masterfully re-created. Character was lightly dealt with, and only that element relevant to politics.
Which brings me to the judgment I have to make, reluctantly, about The Bandar Log. As a novel, it is truly dreadful, much worse than I could have imagined possible.
I first met Reid in 1977 when, as an undergraduate, I went with Abbott to his Cremorne apartment to tell him about the far left control of university student unions. He encouraged me to write for The Bulletin magazine, which I joined in 1979. Reidy became a friend, colleague and mentor, full of encouragement, earthy and superficially cynical, with deadly accurate political radar and a great generosity in talking things over with younger colleagues.
I treasure his memory but I have to be honest about this book. Almost everything is wrong with it. In what is meant to be a serious book, he gives several main characters ludicrous names as a kind of literary joke. Thus the HV Evatt character is named Kaye Seborjar, for Cesare Borgia, and the character who represents Alan himself is Macker Kalley, for Machiavelli.
His exceedingly cynical view of all his characters is way over the top and completely unrealistic. No one has a decent motivation. One of his characters comments authoritatively: “There are no heroes in our racket … mostly miserable bastards who’d send their mothers to a knackery if the price was right.”
Astonishingly for such a gifted journalist, he presents not human beings but pantomime villains and dastardly beasts from Victorian melo- drama. And they’re all meant to be like that. I’ve known a lot of politicians well and virtually all of them started with a good streak of idealism and a sense of public service.
The character based on BA Santamaria is a grotesque caricature. At one stage he is described as an “agent of papal fascism”, elsewhere the Reid character in this book describes him as “a backroom Hitler with fascist sympathies superimposed on deep religious feelings, and the surface mildness of an oriental sage”.
I got to know Santa very well. Admittedly, I didn’t meet him until 1974, 16 years after Reidy wrote The Bandar Log, but he was not remotely anything like the character in Alan’s book. I think Alan only ever met Santa once or twice. In any event Alan’s effort to imagine the private elements of these characters is a complete failure and the novel, though of historical interest, is clumsy, dull, ponderous, didactic, poorly written, repetitive and a complete washout. Alan was lucky it wasn’t published in his lifetime.