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The Hand That Signed The Paper

by Helen Darville

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1473183,379 (2.4)10
As war crimes prosecutions seize Australia, Fiona Kovalenko discovers that her own family is implicated in the darkest events of the twentieth century. This is their story.
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So it turns out this book isn't very good. That's not entirely surprising: this is an ultimately minor, short first novel attempting to compress one of the most shocking events in 20th century history into 157 pages. Still, the prose is surprisingly bland when I think the author is trying to be chilling; the major characters are neatly drawn but fall asunder under the novel's broader conceit; and the minor characters just don't 'pop' at all.

The Hand That Signed the Paper should have been justly forgotten, were it not for the fact that - after winning two of Australia's most prominent literary awards in the early 1990s - it became the subject of the greatest literary scandal in the country since the Ern Malley Affair of the 1940s. Indeed, two scandals!

Scandal One: The author, a young woman named Helen Demidenko, had promoted the novel as what she called "faction" (factual fiction, geddit?), based on the experiences of her elderly and deceased relatives. See, Demidenko was a Ukrainian-Australian - a role she played up by wearing Ukranian peasant dress to some media ops - and felt that the recent increase in war crimes tribunals was merely the latest turn in an endless cycle of revenge which had led to the Holocaust in the first place. She wanted to explore how a combination of hate and self-justification led to the horrors at Treblinka and other places. Critics, therefore, naturally linked Demidenko to the framing character of Fiona, who discovers her uncle and her father's dark secrets from the home country, plunging us into the memories that form the bulk of the novel. We witness three siblings who all become involved in genocide of the Jews, maintaining their ignorance in the face of shocking evidence. These siblings, like so many people who accepted the barbaric rise of Fascism, justify the behaviour of others through a belief that all of the problems in Ukraine were initiated by the Jewish people. When the horrors are done, the survivors are able to make their way to a new life, to an escape to the other side of the world and a life of conscious forgetting. It's a compelling concept.

Demidenko won the Miles Franklin Award and the ALS Gold Medal, on the agreement of the judging panels, as well as the Australian/Vogel award (for an unpublished manuscript) a couple of years earlier. But after the award win, she was criticised by numerous figures - including notably Robert Manne in Quadrant and in an ABC interview - for what many saw as anti-Semitism and historical revisionism. Is this accurate? Initially, I can see how her supporters stood up for her. It's clear what the author was trying to do. Her novel was not intended as a screed of hatred; it was designed to show how ordinary people could be led to do the most monstrous things. After all, many Ukrainian peasants did believe (falsely, of course) that the Jews were the cause of their woes. This is why they welcomed the Nazis in and why they committed atrocities which rival any others that took place during the Holocaust. To achieve her aim, Demidenko puts us inside the heads of the three siblings, making the (obvious) point that even Nazis and their sympathisers were often banal humans with loves and fears and woes. If anything, she's a little heavy-handed with this. There are multiple scenes where characters live out joyous moments within sight or smell of genocide, and even a couple of instances where a didactic narrative voice suddenly emerges, 19th century style, to make it very clear to us that these characters are supposed to be villains!

So, you may ask, what's the problem? First of all, while the author's thesis is clear, the novel's mission statement ultimately presents to the reader not as "ordinary people doing evil things to innocent victims" but rather "ordinary people doing evil things to people who are just as bad as them". There are essentially no good Jewish characters; a couple of them are even notably unpleasant. Also, there's no real attempt to explain some of the more hateful Ukrainian actions beyond a sense that they have been raised to believe the Jewish people are evil. Now, a good novel should not be a cartoon; there is no need for a series of saintly Jews to drive home the point. And no doubt there were horrible Jewish people as there are horrible people of any race. But combining this dearth of "good Jews" with a lack of interest in complicating the mindset of any of the Ukrainians creates a rather unpleasant aftertaste. When we recall Demidenko's stated motivation for writing the novel - that war crimes tribunals were just the latest in an eternal cycle of revenge - we realise that The Hand That Signed the Paper comes perilously close to arguing, purely unintentionally, that, even though the Jews didn't deserve what they got, perhaps they caused it nevertheless. Either Demidenko seriously thinks that the Holocaust only came about because poorly educated people with legitimate generational hatred were given a chance to act on it, or she's too immature to make any more out of this. Given that Demidenko was all of 21 when she wrote the book, I suspect the latter is the answer.

Thus my suspicion is that the book is accidentally anti-Semitic. An author barely out of her teens who decided to tackle such a massive subject: the mindset of monsters trapped in a complicated historical era. Squeezing this into 157 pages, pages that perhaps deserved more editing but were rushed into the public eye because they had won an unpublished-manuscript award, doesn't help. As much as I don't think there was anything deliberate at play here, I've come to appreciate why some critics were so aghast. This short novel concludes with a war criminal dying, surrounded by his loving family, saving him from facing a mean and nasty tribunal that was only going to try and exact revenge on him for acting in line with his cultural values, a trial (the novel implies) would have been little different to the Holocaust itself. It's messy.

Some will say that a novel is not the same as an historical essay; the author should not have to give us the moral we want at the end. In theory I agree. Looking back at the contemporary commentary, it's clear that some of Demidenko's more vociferous critics, including the marvelous Andrew Riemer, were clearly reacting out of ideology as much as from rationality. However in 1995, one can understand this. Plenty of people remembered the Holocaust or had parents who had fought in WWII. Many people continued to deny it had happened at all. The issues were all the more sensitive a generation ago, and the novel simply doesn't have a mature way of tackling this. While I like to think the best of everyone, I find myself suspicious whenever a more libertarian reader refuses to see anything even slightly murky about this novel. Surely any objective critic would have to at least acknowledge that the book implicitly suggests that the Jews and the Bolsheviks were up to something in pre-War Ukraine, and that they should have stopped the "cycle" by being less hateful themselves.

All of this would be beside the point if this were a masterpiece. But The Hand That Signed the Paper is like most first novels: underwhelming and designed to introduce a literary community to an author. First novels are often forgettable, even embarrassing in retrospect. Sometimes they reveal that an author has talent but give little indication as to where that talent will go (think of Patrick White or Virginia Woolf). Intermittently they sparkle or shock. Occasionally they may be a towering achievement. I had long assumed that Demidenko's fate was a tragic one. She had all the promise of an Astley or a Malouf but was thrown out of the club because of an irrational grudge held by the establishment. Instead, this is simply a storyteller of adequate skill who hasn't found her voice yet and isn't up to the task of reckoning with her chosen subject. That's no great shame, and perhaps the author could have become something in the fullness of the time.

But then the real scandal happened. Because someone gave some breadcrumbs to the media, and it didn't take them long to ferret out the truth: Demidenko was not Demidenko at all. She was Helen Darville, an English Lit student from the University of Queensland, daughter of British immigrants, someone with no Ukrainian heritage whatsoever. Her outspoken conduct throughout the book's publicity phase had been merely a performance. It's bewildering, right? Why on earth did this young woman present such a highwire act? She wore that ubiquitous Ukranian peasant dress to conferences and book signings. She gave a ferocious defense on television of her (allegedly) deceased immigrant father's wartime history. It's absurd to think that Darville felt that she could have kept this going. Her fellow highschool and university alumni knew her true identity and I believe her parents were still living. She can't honestly have expected to develop a career as a noted novelist without the charade falling apart. It doesn't seem, in retrospect, that she was genuinely deluded. One might assume, given Darville's subsequent libertarian streak, that this was an ideological ploy, a swipe at the prevailing progressive literary establishment, designed to prove that an average novel could win major awards if the judges were misled by identity politics. (Shades here of the Ern Malley affair, after all.) Yet, given Darville's age, I'm inclined to place the blame on something simpler: youthful arrogance. Like many young people, she was a bit misguided as to her own brilliance and how the system worked. She felt she could make a splash in the world of literature, drive up her sales, and gain an element of notoreity while doing so. After all, no-one seemed to care (and nor do I) that Norman Mailer was a psycho, because his brilliance was all that mattered. So, why not?

I've read a few reviews that get quite hot under the collar, defending Darville against what they perceive as a hegemonic conspiracy to discredit her literary reputation. And, look, let's acknowledge that any system only admits people who are willing to play somewhat by its rules. Patrick White may have been a curmudgeon and an iconoclast, but on a personal level he was known for hosting stonkingly entertaining dinner parties and driving up the prestige of Australian literature. These things mattered. Darville instead merely made everyone feel stupid, tried to con them before she was in the door, and didn't have the literary street cred to make up for it. I'm sure it was tough for her in the aftermath, although I don't know whether she tried to push a second novel in the years immediately following. But it was a poor choice that she made. Additionally, most writers never recover from their first novel; history is littered with watery second novels that end a career, and I see little in this book to suggest she wouldn't have suffered the same fate.

Since 1995, Helen Dale (as she is now known) has gone in a particular direction. She was sacked for plagarism by a major newspaper, worked for a crazed libertarian politician, joined conservative blogs, and was repeatedly accused of plagiarism on her social media accounts, on which she refers to herself as the only real "classical liberal" left in Australia's arts scene. In a 2006 article, she made some intriguing claims. First, that she had been given the idea for the story by a dying Ukranian war criminal, and wanted to protect that person when she submitted her manuscript. Second, that when she received negative feedback from her editor, she decided not to tell them the truth because she rather hoped they might suffer a bit when it was found out. And third, she then got it into her head to challenge the political correctness which she felt dominated the literary scene. (It's odd, of course, that some of her biggest critics at the time turned out to be conservatives, but I suppose she couldn't have predicted that if her story is true.) Yet it's fair to say that people from all sides of the spectrum sat on all sides of the debate. As it dominated the media in the days after "Demidenko" was uncovered, the complexities of the issue - who has the right to tell a story, how much of being an author is a performance in a media spotlight, where does the line between fiction and lying begin - created a dizzying array of views. But when it was all over, as the scandal receded into history, a thick line was set between those who see themselves as socially progressive, and thus opposed to a person who stole the identity of a minority group to tell a story that discredited another minority group, and those who see themselves as socially conservative, and thus would defend the devil himself against limitations on his speech, and share a collective idea that the world is being forced into having one collective idea. While she began writing fiction again in 2017, Darville has found a place for herself as a darling of a certain social set, and there we must leave her. I doubt she would accept the narrative that she was driven to be part of that group because of mainstream dismissal, so I won't see her as the victim of such a tragedy.

One may dispute the argument that the book is anti-Semitic. I don't believe it's intentionally so, as I've mentioned. One may try to disagree that Darville's performance was highly perplexing. (But it absolutely was.) Still, I'm befuddled as to the 5-star reviews this book occasionally warrants here on Goodreads. Is it the stale prose? The underwhelming characterisations? Or the shaky moments where the narrative voice falls in upon itself, and we are left with the clear impression of a debut novelist unsure of how to deal with complexity? Or is it just being well-reviewed for political and ideological reasons? I have no desire to unfairly chastise a young person for their first major work from three decades ago. This is a novella with some good ideas that doesn't have the insight nor the self-awareness to tackle them. That's all. As to why the novel won major awards, I can only shrug and say: a) it wasn't a scintillating year for prose (look at the competitors on the shortlist); b) the feedback loop from the Vogel award, combined with the name recognition of the Demidenko performance no doubt helped; and c) reviewers are, alas, human. It would not be the first time that ideology and the zeitgeist played strong roles in an award panel's decisions, rather than merely aesthetics!

Forgettable and not worth reading, in spite of the scandal. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 24, 2023 |
I read this before the revelations of her true identity etc. The writing is self-conscious in an irritating way. The story, though repulsive, shows a writer with an independent mind, willing to go places others would not. But unfortunately, her style is so lumpy and awkward that the whole thing becomes a chore to read. There is not enough light and shade, the characters are all so much the same, full of an unending brutality that numbed me. It reads more like a sort of propaganda, showing an undeveloped sense of understanding of humans and society, and how to portray them. ( )
1 vote thewordygecko | Jun 23, 2006 |
Winner of the Franklin Literary Award (leading Australian award), but very controversial when it was discovered that the author was not who she said she was, i.e., the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants and who, it was proven, had committed plagiarism in her past. The personal fabrications of the author were quite fantastic and seem an interesting comment on the gullibility of the media or the lack of critical faculty when dealing with a "popular" phenomenon. Those aside, we can judge the book on its own merits.

It is not up to the standard I would expect for a major literary award, nor to the standard I know from other Australian writers. In fact, it is not a book I would recommend to a friend. One friend noted a gross inconsistency in the considerable unlikelihood of the use of Gaelic in that time and place (as was supposedly done by a couple of characters when they did not wish to be understood by others). There were a couple of other elements that jarred. One was the completely undeveloped and unexplained metamorphosis of Kretschmann, the true believer and devoted Nazi who, post-war, experiences some sort of epiphany and devotes his life to the Peace Corps in a life-long struggle against racism. Not impossible, I suppose, but hard to swallow at face value. The treatment of the "cultured" German officer is superficial. There is a line about him regarding the Ukrainians with anthropological disinterest because he was steeped in the writings of Margaret Mead which struck me as a bit over the edge. I looked up the dates of Mead's publications; it is possible to have been reading some of her earlier work at that time, but I somehow doubt that it was on the interest lists of very many National Socialists. I really laughed at the description of the German officer reprimanding the concentration camp inmate who was loading books in a truck with, "empiricism over here...How dare you put J.S.Mill beside Nietszche?"! Somehow the dialogue does not ring true.

The book has been attacked as an apologia for Ukrainian complicity in the Holocaust. The problem lies in the confusion between understanding and exculpation or, as a friend put it, the a lack of moral stance. The author does a decent job of showing that it would not be much of a stretch for someone who grew up in the benighted, anti-Semitic atmosphere of the Ukraine, to become an active participant in systematic murder of Jews. However, to understand the social or historical milieu is not to excuse or approve and it is here that the author fails.
1 vote John | Nov 29, 2005 |
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As war crimes prosecutions seize Australia, Fiona Kovalenko discovers that her own family is implicated in the darkest events of the twentieth century. This is their story.

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