On 20 October in Melbourne, I had the satisfaction, as one of the judges of the Victorian Premier’s Prize for First Fiction, of not giving the award to a young writer who has perpetrated one of the greatest frauds in Australia’s rich history of literary hoaxes and deceptions. Before she was exposed, Helen Demidenko, as she styled herself (Helen Darville as she in fact is), might have seemed to be one of the favourites for the prize; indeed, the press was understandably anxious to know whether we had intended shortlisting the book, and only withdrawn it under pressure. In fact, we had determined weeks before the Demidenko affair reached its final phase to give the prize to Richard Flanagan, for his magical-realist investigation of Tasmania’s history, The Death of a River Guide.
Helen Demidenko published her novel, The Hand That Signed the Paper, in 1994, when she was 23. She claimed that, like the narrator of her book, she had a Ukrainian father and an Irish Protestant mother. In the novel Stalin’s rape of the Ukraine is linked to the activities of Ukrainian war criminals who, in revenge for the atrocities visited on them by those they identified as Jewish Bolsheviks, collaborated in the Holocaust, serving as guards at Treblinka and taking part in the massacre of Babi Yar. The Hand That Signed the Paper went on to win the Vogel Award, the most prominent prize for first novels in Australia; it was described by David Marr, Patrick White’s biographer, as ‘astonishingly talented’, and by Jill Kitson of the ABC as ‘a searingly truthful account of terrible wartime deeds that is also an imaginative work of extraordinary redemptive power’.
Assuming, as we all did, that the novel was, unambiguously, Demidenko’s own work (grounded in family history), there seemed nothing controversial about a group of judges deciding to give it a first-novel award. The trouble started in the middle of this year when Jill Kitson and her fellow judges elected to give it Australia’s major fiction prize, the Miles Franklin Award. It was a decision that bewildered those few members of the literary world who had read the book, and which had the far more important effect of commanding the attention of a nation that takes its big books seriously. The upshot was that a significant group of literate, but not professionally literary, people found themselves reading this novel, which Jill Kitson had praised as a great act of courage on the part of a young Ukrainian woman who was exposing the fact that her own family contained war criminals, one of whom – if the novel was any guide – had almost been prosecuted for his crimes.
The persistent equation which Demidenko makes between Jews and Bolsheviks, together with the absence of any sympathetic Jewish characters and the scanting of the history of Ukrainian pogroms, seemed to the book’s better informed readers to whitewash Ukrainian Nazis, to denigrate those honourable Ukrainians like the Archbishop of Lvov who had sought to protect the Jews, and to bring into Australian fiction and discourse a view of the Holocaust which, whether wittingly or not, was, at the very least, crypto-Fascist.
Australia is a liberal society, in which Fascism is anathema to people of very different political views. I myself heard a left-wing novelist anticipate almost word for word the attack later made on Demidenko by Gerard Henderson, a leading right-wing columnist, in the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. On 27 June, Henderson described The Hand That Signed the Paper as ‘a loathsome book’, and all the more so because the author had presented it to the world as ‘faction’. ‘This book will give comfort to racists and anti-semites – from Australia’s lunatic League of Rights to the Fascist wing of Russia’s Pamyat movement.’
Vol. 17 No. 24 · 14 December 1995
Peter Craven, in his mischievous Melbourne Diary piece (LRB, 16 November), about the months-long furore over the 1995 Miles Franklin Award-winner, reveals that he was not paying attention at the Victorian Premier’s awards shortlist announcement in September. What I said was:
I only hope that this year’s uproar does not have the effect of intimidating future literary judges into making only safe, non-controversial decisions – into denying literary recognition to the sort of writer Amos Oz describes as ‘the witchdoctor of the tribe, who conjures the fears and phantoms and terror … and so brings relief either to the whole tribe or some of its members, even if the tribe is ungrateful, even if it howls with pain and fury, even if it shouts “what will the neighbouring tribes say about us?” ’
Several facts, not in Peter Craven’s account of the affair, merit attention. First, The Hand that Signed the Paper, having won the 1993 Vogel Award, was widely and on the whole favourably reviewed on publication in October 1994. Secondly, as well as Dame Leonie Kramer and myself, Professor Harry Heseltine and Associate Professor Adrian Mitchell were members of the panel of judges that gave it the Miles Franklin Award in June. Thirdly, in July, another panel of judges awarded Helen Demidenko the annual Australian Society of Literature Gold Medal. All the judges of both awards have stood by their separate judgments.
What I find most disquieting are the grounds on which Peter Craven judges The Hand that Signed the Paper unworthy of its literary awards. He himself, it seems, belongs to that group of readers of the book who, he says,‘schooled by the fraud, were able to see The Hand that Signed the Paper as exhibiting a disturbing tone of moral disengagement’ (my italics). Surely, in a word, irony. The emotionless prose in which the narrator sets down the oral testimony of her relatives, violently anti-semitic Ukrainian peasants who survived Stalin and the famine to collaborate with the SS during the war, is the language of those who are, in Gitta Sereny’s phrase, ‘morally extinguished’. The irony is that in the terrible factual simplicity of the prose the horrified reader discovers the common humanity we share with those who behave like savages. ‘Irony irritates,’ says Kundera in The Art of the Novel, ‘not because it mocks or attacks but because it denies us our certainties by unmasking the world as an ambiguity.’
Peter Craven’s Diary about the Demidenko imbroglio was fair comment except in one respect. He had no business portraying Jill Kitson as some sort of cultural commissar. I wouldn’t need to have known her and respected her most of my life to know that she is a good servant of literature in Australia – meaning that she is a good servant of world literature as a whole, and does her energetic best, through her position at the ABC, to make sure that the intelligent Australian reading public gets to hear visiting writers in person. The mere testimony of those writers, all gratified to be interviewed so intelligently, would be enough to convince me, or anybody else, that she is a valuable go-between for the by now intimate and flourishing involvement of the wider world and its most enviably productive outpost. The dimmer Australian cultural journalisis construe the position she has attained as one of power rather than influence, but Mr Craven should be slower to join them. Witch-finding is a lingering vestige of provincialism, like the long relishing of the merest embarrassment. So much was made of the Ern Malley hoax that Max Harris, an honest and worthy man guilty of no greater crime than young enthusiasm, went to his grave still famous for having been taken in. But it was a storm in a teacup, and to pretend that the storm raged on only emphasised that Australia was still a teacup. Hoaxes usually work. The world runs on good faith, not self-preserving suspicion. To be successfully targeted by a fraud is punishment enough, without having to hear those who were spared prate on about it, stoked in their ardour by the dubious assumption that they would not have been taken in themselves. The Demidenko case already has a sufficient victim: Helen Darville. As the text of her book can still reveal to the attentive reader, even through the harsh light of knowledge that now makes objective assessment so difficult, she is, or at any rate was, a natural writer. The place for her personality disorders was on the page, where they might have been resolved into art through a long creative maturity. Instead she acted them out in her life, and doomed a promising career at the start. The only witch in this case is already burning. For her sake, for literature’s sake, and above all for the sake of our country’s painfully slow emergence from its parochial ecstasy of misplaced and unnecessary self-importance, we should avoid making a landmark of her pyre.
Vol. 18 No. 2 · 25 January 1996
Peter Craven’s account of the Demidenko affair (LRB, 16 November 1995) strikes me as a partial one – like so much of the debate on both sides. He does not mention that a third honour was given to the author of The Hand That Signed the Paper. At the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Adelaide in early July she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Literary Society. This is the oldest prize of its kind in Australia, and the list of recipients includes Martin Boyd, Henry Handel Richardson, Patrick White and David Malouf. Although the medal was given a little after the Miles Franklin Award was made, the judges were constrained publicly to deny Peter Craven’s assumption that they had ‘jumped on the bandwagon’: their decision had been made quite independently, over a month before the Miles Franklin announcement was made. So three separate committees of senior academics and literary journalists – Jill Kitson served on both the Vogel and the Miles Franklin – have decided that The Hand That Signed the Paper is a serious and important work. It is in the nature of such committees that conservative and established people are appointed to them. They may not be in tune with young radicals, but it is grotesque to suggest, as by implication Craven does, that they are incompetent literary judges, or likely to be sucked in by a fashion for ‘multiculturalism’. They may have accepted as genuine the ‘Demidenko’ persona assumed by Helen Darville. But it should be noted that she (for whatever reasons) had publicly assumed this persona as a student at the University of Queensland in 1992, before the novel was entered for the Vogel Award. It should also be noted that the book states firmly on its opening page: ‘This is a work of fiction. The Kovalenko family … has no counterpart in reality.’
I don’t know who the ‘few members of the literary world who had read the book’ and were ‘bewildered’ when it won the Miles Franklin may be. Perhaps those, like the three panels of judges, who have read it and admired it, are thereby excluded from membership of Australia’s small, scattered and fissiparous ‘literary world’. They should worry.
What should be interesting to the ‘literary world’ is not the ill-considered actions of a strange young woman, or the malicious pursuit of her by some of the media, but the book she has written, and the way it has divided opinion across all groups. There are Jewish intellectuals prepared to defend The Hand That Signed the Paper, in spite of strong attacks on it from others; some traditionalists who attack the book blame its approval on ‘modern theory’, which has removed all moral responsibility from the study of literature. But one of its defenders, Professor Dame Leonie Kramer, is a vehement opponent of ‘theory’ and has said so in high places. The ‘new men’ (and women) with an interest in literary theory are also divided. Philip Mead of Melbourne University defends the book in a radio debate with Robert Manne, one of its strongest opponents; while Ivor Indyk of Sydney University, where Dame Leonie held the chair of Australian Literature, is a strong opponent. There is no consensus: it is probably the case that opposition to the book has been more persistent and concerted, but that does not guarantee that it represents an overwhelming majority.
My own view is that the book is a serious attempt at a very difficult problem. How can her father and nice Uncle Vitaly, whom Fiona, the main narrative voice in the book, has known and trusted all her life, be monsters? Of course there are faults, and there are failures of taste and judgment in places, but overall it is an impressive attempt to grapple with themes perhaps too complex for so young an author. I do not find it anti-semitic: to my mind such a conclusion implies a superficial or naive reading that cannot distinguish between the views of the author and the statements of her characters. The critics of the book certainly do include some very unsophisticated readers – unable to recognise, for example, the irony implicit in recording the wish of a commandant at Treblinka to have his camp look ‘pretty’.