Peter Craven

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the prize; indeed, the press was understandably anxious to know whether we had intended shortlisting the book, and only withdrawn it under pressure.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.’

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