Sunday, 1 July 2012


Vintage Books, 2011, 719 pages, $32.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Edith Berry is about to face a challenge.  Married to a British diplomat and expecting something senior in the Canberra foreign affairs bureaucracy, her long lost brother, Frederick, turns up and announces that he is an organiser with the Communist Party of Australia seeking her help to oppose plans by the Menzies Liberal Government to ban the party and put Australia’s communists in internment camps.  Will Edith’s liberal belief in freedom of political expression, association and assembly, plus the “inescapable bond of birth” between brother and sister, see her stand for principle or cut her “danger brother” for the sake of her job?

Frank Moorhouse’s latest novel, Cold Light, tosses Edith about on the horns of her dilemma.  It would be unfair to give away the ending but Moorhouse’s interpretation of the interplay between different left-of-centre political worldviews (both Edith and Frederick share “idealistic aspirations for the betterment of the world”) is worth reviewing.

Edith’s cause has been internationalism, world peace and creating “plenty for the destitute of the world through nuclear power”, first as an advisor to Menzies and then as an “eminent person” appointed by Labor Prime Minister Whitlam (when asking Whitlam if his party still sees Australian uranium as “the Devil’s work”, Whitlam answers “yes, and being now a Government, the Devil’s work is now our work”).

Edith’s habitat is “multilateral diplomacy” via the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, her sustenance the “diplomatic passport, drivers, interpreters, bodyguards, consulate courtesies”.  Prodded by Frederick, and his partner-comrade(Janice), Edith puts a toe in the waters of political protest but thinks “capitalism could be changed from within”.  Frederick and Janice are, by contrast, anti-capitalist activists working to overthrow the international capitalist  order.

Edith’s quandary between challenging capitalist power and taming it via conference resolution remains unresolved.  She scans her life of “grand failures” (the League, the peaceful use of uranium, designing Canberra as an egalitarian community) and concludes that it is all too hard to “change human destiny for the better”.

Her new-found communist friends, on the other hand, get their come-uppance courtesy of Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech on the crimes of Stalin – Fred is politically destroyed and becomes a “hermit scholar”, Janice morphs into a hard-line Stalinist.  For Edith, Khrushchev’s revelations “showed what so many … had come to realise over the years – that the whole history of the Soviet Union had been a barbarous lie and a disaster”.  The “economic insights” of Marxism “might still stand but everything else”, she reflects, but the socialist politics and vision do not. 

Edith wallows in the “sad wisdom” that “improved versions of this world are imaginary”.  Politics (and relationships – Edith has “confused yearnings” for Janice, and her diplomat husband has a “fantasy identity as a woman”) is a life of “everlasting perplexity”.  All this irresolute political fence-sitting by Edith dilutes the dramatic tension of the novel.

Neither does the language of the characters assist.  Moorhouse’s communists speak in the clich├ęd jargon of the tedious ideologue (a technique which also equates the native Australian communist with the 1950s Russian Stalinist – two fundamentally different political species) whilst Edith’s middle class intellectuals routinely quote Byron, Shakespeare, H. G. Wells (and Lytton Strachey on Ottoline Morrell) at the drop of a not very convincing hat.

Cold Light is a novel which promises much but too often flounders in the sands of Edith’s (and Moorhouse’s) “traditional liberal values” – aware but pessimistic about capitalist power, sympathetic to the victims of that power but wary about change (especially socialist change) from below.  Good-hearted liberal elitism is not enough.

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