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Vol. 17 No. 22 · 16 November 1995
Diary

On the Demidenko Affair

Peter Craven

2606 words

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prize; indeed, the press was understandably anxious to know whether we had intended shortlisting the book, and only withdrawn it under pressure.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

On the same page of the Age Demidenko could be read, putting her case with a debater’s zeal. She did not sound, it must be admitted, like a card-carrying Fascist, but she did sound like a person of overweening self-confidence and historical naivety. ‘Individual Jews, albeit in quite large numbers, collaborated with Bolshevism. Clearly, the numbers on both sides were great enough for each to think the other primarily responsible for genocide. Since it is the least well-known of these historical events I’ll outline some of the Jewish collaboration with Bolshevism, and attempt to provide a motive.’ Her ‘outline’ failed to mention that at least 50,000 Jews had died in the Ukrainian pogrom of 1918-20 and that Jewish membership of the Communist Party in the Ukraine could not have been higher than 14 per cent. She did, however, have her trump card: ‘most of my father’s family, including my grandfather, were killed by Jewish Communist Party officials in Vymnytsa.’ This remark was not to be easily forgiven her when she proved to be someone other than she seemed. It was also difficult to understand how she could have asked Henderson, on national television, what he was doing speaking on behalf of the Jews when he wasn’t one himself.

Demidenko also declared, portentously, that she was a lawyer who had spent a good deal of her life – she is 24 years old – in courtrooms: a claim proved to be false within a matter of days. There was also a certain black comedy in the fact that the girl who had lied about being a lawyer should be attacked two days later, in the same papers, by Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard professor of law, who happened to be visiting Australia. I met Jill Kitson on the morning his article was published. ‘Now we’ve been attacked by a man called Dershowitz. Who’s Alan Dershowitz?’ she declared in a tone which suggested that obscure people with Jewish names were coming out of the woodwork everywhere. I explained that Alan Dershowitz was the lawyer she might have seen represented in the film about the Claus von Bülow case, that he was on O.J. Simpson’s defence team and was by way of being one of the more famous lawyers in the world.

Dershowitz began by saying: ‘One of the most pernicious and mean-spirited works of fiction has just been awarded the highest literary prize in Australia.’ He saw The Hand That Signed the Paper as an attempt ‘to explain – and even justify ... the Ukrainian complicity in the Holocaust so that war crimes could go unpunished’. His was the most charismatic intervention in a debate which raged for many weeks, with the political hardheads screaming ‘Fascism’ while literary people defended the book, or at least tried to mitigate its offensiveness, on the grounds of art or at least an ambition thereunto.

Then, on 19 August, the Brisbane Courier Mail published an article revealing that Helen Demidenko’s real name was Helen Darville and that her parents were Harry and Grace Darville, from Scunthorpe. The story was big enough to move the recent death of a very famous Australian Rules footballer (known as ‘Mr Football’, he received a state funeral) off the front page of Murdoch’s Melbourne tabloid, the Herald Sun. The full story took a day or two to come out. Helen had not attended a local working-class high school as she had said, but a Lutheran college whose headmaster blew her cover. Darville-Demidenko was still claiming to be Ukrainian, however, when her mother announced that it would be best to make a clean breast of it: ‘We arc Poms, let’s be honest about it.’ Young Helen, we learned, told ‘the biggest crammers in the world’. What difference did it make? Jill Kitson was to ask an interviewer: Tolstoy had not had any firsthand experience of the events described in War and Peace.

As details poured in about this one-time dyslexic girl with a photographic memory who had tried to persuade the National Party (the rural component of Australia’s Tory coalition) to indemnify war criminals, it emerged that, as a student at Queensland University, Helen Darville had passed off as her own, and demanded payment for, an article flagrantly plagiarised from the well-known Australian humorist Patrick Cook.

Six days after the hoax was exposed Helen Darville issued an apology. She claimed, though she gave no details, that while she was at school she had met a Ukrainian girl whose family had first-hand experience of wartime atrocities and that at the age of 21 she had gone back to this ‘original source of stories’. She was ‘truly sorry if my book or my actions have been perceived as anti-semitic ... I condemn without reservation the perpetrators of the Holocaust. It was never my intention to condone those responsible for atrocities. I wanted to show the obscenity of war.’ Nothing more was heard of the ‘source’ though the thought occurred that a middle-class girl who identified with a working-class school down the road might have had a girlfriend who was Ukrainian and that in a work of fiction a real Helen Demidenko might just be found at the bottom of the Darville garden. A grisly touch was that the only record of the name Demidenko is of an SS officer barking out the order to his Ukrainian underling when Jewish bodies were being hurled into the mass grave at Babi Yar: ‘Start shovelling, Demidenko.’ This was reported by the only survivor of the massacre in Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar. It is repeated in Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust and is used in D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, both of which Darville admits having read.

Five days later, subterranean whispers of plagiarism had turned into a shriek. Not only did The Hand That Signed the Paper open with a sentence that appears to have been cribbed from Thomas Keneally but there were a number of significant echoes from other writers – a passage, forexample, from an obscure book called The Black Deeds of the Kremlin, which it is difficult not to imagine the author had open before her as she typed. Her publishers, Allen and Unwin, froze supplies of the book in order to conduct an investigation, in which Darville was to assist. On 8 September, they declared that the book did not infringe copyright or plagiarise historical accounts. The lawyers did not refer to specific passages, nor did they disclose the name of the expert in the field of modernist or post-modernist technique’ who had instructed them that ‘the techniques employed by the author are absolutely normal in the kind of self-conscious novelistic traditions in which the author works’ – an odd defence for a novel which manifestly aims for an effect of transparent realism.

On the day the lawyers’ report was made public the Miles Franklin judges issued a statement declaring that Helen Darville should keep the $25,000 award. It was suggested that she had been persecuted in a quite extraordinary way, and when the Victorian Premier’s awards shortlists, which did not include ‘Helen Demidenko’, were announced, Jill Kitson spoke of the ‘witchdoctors’ who had stirred up the ‘tribe’ and hinted at a lack of moral courage and of the willingness to judge books on their merits.

Then, on 3 October, the Age published a piece in which Brian Matthews, the director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies in London, detailed the elaborate parallels, amounting to apparent wholesale appropriation, between a Demidenko story recently published in a magazine and a fictionalised memoir of his own. Helen Darville had written to him, three days before her fraud was exposed, saying she sometimes had trouble with her uncontrollable photographic memory. It’s hard to believe that even someone who suffered from repressed total recall could possibly retain so detailed a ‘remembrance’ of such a modest piece of comic realism as that of Brian Matthews.

What stops Helen Darville’s fraud from being merely hilarious is that her donning of an ethnic identity in multicultural Australia was not innocent. It may be funny when we learn that this Anglo-Saxon girl forced her publisher to dance a Ukrainian folk dance with her after she won the Miles Franklin Award: it is not funny that someone taking a Ukrainian identity should use it to claim that most of her family had been killed by Jewish Communists. We all took the book, on the author’s say-so, as ‘faction’, and felt that the partisanship it disclosed was born of a young writer’s Ukrainian inheritance. But there was no such inheritance.

It would he wrong to suggest that the Miles Franklin judges acted corruptly or because they wanted to show how multicultural they could be. They had been subjected to a lot of criticism in the previous year for adhering to a brief which states that the winning novel must depict ‘Australian life’, narrowly considered. The Hand That Signed the Paper has the advantage of being set against the calamitous background of the Ukrainian famine and Hitler’s concentration camps, but it also contains a contemporary Australian subplot concerning Uncle Vitali, the war criminal, and how he will cope with the prospect of being tried for his crimes.

It is remarkable, however, that the judges could have contemplated giving a major prize to a work which has so many obvious defects – the most obvious of which is the absence of any sympathetic Jewish characters. The editor of Quadrant, Robert Manne, summed it up when he said that the novel appeared to be set in a contemporary Queensland that was somehow equipped with concentration camps. Yet the book’s flaws in a way worked to Demidenko’s advantage, because of the allowances we’re prepared to make for something thought to be ‘faction’. That Darville should have her narrator’s Irish mother talking to a Scottish uncle in Gaelic is a clear improbability which should either have been eliminated or explained. As Michael Heyward, author of The Ern Malley Affair, pointed out, hoaxes work like this: only when you are aware of a fraud do you see inanity for what it is – the Gaelic conversation springs from Darville’s ignorance.

What remains fascinating about the Darville-Demidenko case is that most of those who read the book during each phase of the controversy had their readings determined by the current state of play. Those who read it at the outset, like David Marr and Jill Kitson, saw it so much through the window of their own liberalism that they failed to notice its Ukrainian parti pris, and took the anti-semitism to be that of the character, never the writer. A second group of readers went to the other extreme and could see nothing in the book apart from its equation of Jews with Communists – at its most extreme this meant ignoring the fact that Kaganovich, Stalin’s butcher in the Ukraine, was Jewish. A third and last group of readers however, schooled by the fraud, were able to see The Hand That Signed the Paper as exhibiting a disturbing tone of moral disengagement.

One effect of the affair, clearly, has been to cast doubt on the whole system of literary awards (and of the Miles Franklin in particular). Jill Kitson and her fellow judge Dame Leonie Kramer did nothing more sinister than wildly overvalue a novice’s book, but they clung so fiercely to that mistaken judgment that they have given the impression of wanting to back a disturbed and narcissistic girl, with marked plagiaristic tendencies and possibly an anti-semistic agenda, out of nothing but a stiff-necked attachment to their own infallibility. They should resign. One wit said, cruelly, that with Max Harris, the butt of the Em Malley hoax, having died recently, his spirit was bound to pass to someone else.

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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.’

Jill Kitson
Radio National

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.

Clive James
Cambridge

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’.

F.H. Mares
Balhannah, Australia

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