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the prize; indeed, the press was understandably anxious to know whether we had intended shortlisting the book, and only withdrawn it under pressure.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.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.