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Rodney Hall: Kisses of the Enemy

Funnily enough, I read this the week of the 1999 Australian referendum on the monarch v. republic. I say funnily enough because the topic of Hall’s superb novel is the first Australian republican administration (the book was published in 1987). Bernard Buchanan has been “selected” to be the first president not because he is competent but because the mysterious global conglomerate Interim Freeholdings Inc. of Delaware (IFID) that controls Australia (and most of the rest of the world) wants him. The rest of the novel is the story of the Buchanan presidency. Buchanan, though beholden to IFID, becomes an erratic and autocratic but strangely fascinating president. And that is what makes the book so worthwhile as Hall presents us with this monster whom we cannot help find if not likeable, at least interesting.

Buchanan started out as a real estate agent but soon fits into the job of president with an ease that would have made Stalin proud. He has many problems. His wife has no desire to be first lady and wants only to play her music on the piano, tend her garden and, definitely in third place, bring up their son. They effectively live separate lives but she keeps popping in and Hall certainly does not leave her out of the picture. He has two major health problems. Firstly, for most of the book, he is unable to sleep – at all. He turns this to advantage by requiring an already compliant parliament to sit from 11 p.m. His second problem is that he is massively overweight. This is not through overeating – he just keeps getting bigger and bigger for no apparent reason. He is no longer able to walk and has to be carried everywhere like a Roman Emperor – which is, of course, the point. With IFID and its intermediary, an elderly Australian-Hungarian businessman called, naturally enough, Sir William Penhallurick, various sinister flunkies and assistants and an increasing virulent but playful terrorist opposition, this book is populated with a wonderful cast of characters. It is also filled with wonderful scenes – the kidnapping of the Queen (Elizabeth) by the Free Hanseatic group is one example and the clever juxtaposition with the early colonial times is another. Pity the republicans lost the referendum so we cannot see whether Hall was right.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Penguin