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«Telling the Big Lie: obfuscation and untruth in Helen Demidenko/Darville’s ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’ Stephen Lehane Smith Abstract In ...»

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Telling the Big Lie: obfuscation and untruth in Helen

Demidenko/Darville’s ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’

Stephen Lehane Smith


In signing her name as Demidenko and not Darville, Helen Darville instigated one of

the most notorious literary hoaxes in Australian history. Under the guise of a

fabricated Ukrainian identity, Darville published ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’

(1994), the fictional retelling of a Ukrainian family’s involvement in the Holocaust.

This story is told through different perspectives and each lends credence to the overarching narrative: the justification of the Ukrainian participation in the extermination camps of World War II. When initially confronted with accusations of historical inaccuracies and anti-Semitism, Darville claimed that she had based her fiction on the experiences of her own family. On this foundation of historical authenticity, the novel was at first celebrated for envisioning perspectives lost to history. However, after it was revealed in August of 1995 that Helen Demidenko was really Helen Darville—the daughter of middle-class British parents—the novel was once again criticised as anti-Semitic. Despite the vast body of critical literature on the subject, few scholarly studies explore the problematic line between imaginative freedom and fact that this hoax reveals.

This paper investigates the tension between the historical record and imagined details within ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’, examining how Helen Darville uses the techniques of postmodern historical fiction to obfuscate the moralising intentions behind her re-visioning of the past. In examining this text, I identify several interesting attributes of the relationship between works of historical fiction and authorial intentionality.

Keywords: Helen Demidenko, Helen Darville, postmodernism, historical fiction, authorial intention, literary hoax.


1. Telling Tales From the assumption of false identities to the fabrication of entire bodies of work, Australia has a well-established history of literary hoaxes. Arguably the most influential and culturally resonant of these hoaxes—the Ern Malley poetry hoax of 1943—ultimately led to obscenity trials for the literary journal the poems were published in, stirred debates around the importance and validity of formal experimentation in works of literature, and formed—in part—the generative origins of Australian postmodernism.1 In recent times, instances of literary imposture, such as those instigated by Mudrooroo and Wanda Koolmatrie, have complicated ideas surrounding authenticity and authority. As Susanna Egan notes in a paper

investigating identity fraud in autobiography:

Telling the Big Lie 2 __________________________________________________________________

Australian incidents of literary imposture may in part describe unstable power relations—between settlers of British descent and Aboriginal communities and other immigrant communities— which ascribe value to particular forms of identity.2 While such a statement exemplifies the tendency of hoaxes to reveal the fault lines around race, multiculturalism, and political power in our society, it is also clear that the controversies surrounding these hoaxes have often illuminated problems around the ethical, aesthetic, and historical responsibilities of literature.

No less has Helen Darville/Demidenko’s The Hand that Signed the Paper (1994), and the ensuing controversy that erupted in the wake of its discovery as a fraud, painted a disturbing picture of multicultural Australia while raising concerns about literary practice and production. Specifically, this controversy has sparked debate about anti-Semitism, the appropriation of minority identities and perspectives, the politics of literary prizes in Australia, plagiarism and sampling of historical texts, and the legitimacy of historical revisionism, amongst other issues. Although much has been written on these topics, this paper returns to the Demidenko controversy in the wake of recent debates on the legitimacy of fiction as a means of representing the past.

Recently, several commercially and critically successful works of Australian historical fiction have been lambasted by historians and cultural commentators for imaginatively exploring contested histories. Although some scholars have expressed bewilderment at why only certain texts have received criticism, these texts all share similar approaches to the representation of the past in fiction. The aesthetic issues of these representations, however, somewhat resist articulation, as their identification is predicated on extensive knowledge of the development of the historical novel genre, and its interaction with history writing in general.

Because I believe that historical fiction can—and does—play a role in shaping public conceptions of the past, I want to understand the nature and practice of good historical fiction writing. By examining The Hand that Signed the Paper—which more obviously embodies the problems of supplementing the historical record with imaginative details than recently criticised texts—I aim to point to the possible pitfalls of producing a work of historical fiction. As this is the case, this paper does not focus overly on Helen Darville’s assumption of a false name and cultural identity, but instead attempts to explicate how Darville’s approach to the representation of the past obfuscated her moralising intentions, and by doing so, contributed to the controversy surrounding her work. The question I ask in this paper is deceptively simple: Is it possible to reconcile imaginative writing with the demand for historical accuracy?

–  –  –

On September 22, 1993 Helen Demidenko, the daughter of Ukrainian refugees, won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for her unpublished manuscript The Hand that Signed the Paper. On August 19, 1995 Helen Darville, the daughter of British parents, was revealed to be its author. In his address at the celebratory dinner for the Vogel prize, journalist and political commentator David Marr warned Demidenko of those who could not read fiction, those who could not distinguish between works of fiction and the views of the author, those who would try to censor the book for its anti-Semitic content.4 Despite this warning, Demidenko initially received praise for her ‘courageous’ imagining of the Holocaust ‘from an unfamiliar point of view’— namely, the perspective of the Ukrainians who readily enlisted in the SS Death Squads.5 Although some early reviewers pointed out that the novel ‘skated over’ the ‘long tradition of anti-Semitism in eastern Europe’6, it was not until Demidenko had won the Miles Franklin Award in June 1995 that any sustained criticism of the novel’s clear justification for the Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust was aired.

Defending The Hand that Signed the Paper on the grounds that the narrator’s views should not be confused with the author’s, became increasingly problematic as more details surrounding the novel’s publication emerged. For instance, in the published version of The Hand that Signed the Paper, the character’s last name is ‘Kovalenko’; in the manuscript version that was submitted to The Vogel Prize, it was ‘Demidenko’.7 Furthermore, much of the overt racial abuse and stereotyping found in the manuscript was removed during the editing process.8 The ‘Author’s Note’ of the book itself says that ‘it would be ridiculous to pretend that this book is unhistorical: I have used historical events and people where necessary throughout the text’.9 By inventing a Ukrainian identity, Darville lent her book veracity and authority. Without this false identity, and the claim that the novel’s history was based on family stories, the work became a clearly erroneous version of history that supported anti-Semitism.

One of the questions that emerged from the controversy surrounding this novel was the legitimacy of subjecting literary works to historical criticism.10 For instance, in an article published prior to the unmasking of Demidenko, journalist Kate Legge argued: ‘The call for historical correctness in fiction seems to yearn for a rightness of moral message which surely would straightjacket artistic freedom and quarantine fertile ground from literary inquiry’.11 The discussion over this question continues even to this day, as, recently, controversy has dogged the representation of history in works of fiction. Given that the success of historical fiction relies—in part—on Telling the Big Lie 4 __________________________________________________________________

immersing its readers in the world of the past, one could ask whether it would be infeasible to expect these works to meet the rigours and expectations of history writing. By looking, briefly, at the development of historical fiction, I will now argue that not only can historical fiction meet these expectations, but it also should.

3. Remediations The historical novel, as it is now understood, only emerged with the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly (1814). Scholarly surveys of historical fiction have struggled to set specific parameters for its definition, but a generally accepted definition of historical novels is that they are works set more than 40 years before their publication, and that the majority of the events stand outside any mature personal experience of the author. In early works of historical fiction imagination became a tool to explicate historical character—tolerable as long as it had a basis in the record. However, the form of historical fiction was inexorably tied to developments in history writing and literature. To illustrate the historicity of their novels, Walter Scott—and many of the 19th century novelists influenced by him— frequently expounded upon their methods in the prefaces, notes, and text of their works. The self-reflexivity found in these novels can be seen as ways of responding to—and representing—the tension caused by the imperfection at the heart of all historical writing.12 After a period of crisis and decline, historical fiction experienced a resurgence of popularity in the wake of structuralist and poststructuralist criticisms of the validity of representing reality through narrative.13 By drawing attention to the fragmentary nature of history, poststructuralist theorists like Hayden White, Dominic LaCapra, and Frederic Jameson explicated how historians use narrative devices and rhetorical strategies to smooth the events of history into a coherent narrative.14 Problematically, the desire to narrativise history can be related to the desire to moralise reality. In pointing to the dangers of writing history, the historian Eric Hobsbawm says that it is the ‘raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction’.15 Many of the postmodern historical fictions that emerged at this time selfconsciously drew attention to the way they shaped their narratives. By doing so, these works revealed their fictional worlds to be historically conditioned and history itself to be shaped by the intentions and prejudices of its author.16 However, the interrogation of conceptions of truth, history, and realism is—and always has been— innate within works of historical fiction. Indeed, in his recent critical survey of the historical novel, Jerome de Groot suggests that rather than simply characteristics of postmodern historical fiction, ‘[t]he modes of postmodernism might be seen to be necessary, indeed fundamental, to the project of historical novel writing’. 17 Seeing as scholars and practitioners have frequently justified the validity of historical fiction on didactic grounds, the inclusion of postmodern techniques that point to the Stephen Lehane Smith 5 __________________________________________________________________

partiality of one’s re-visioning of the past could be seen as necessary to avoid moralising—and in some sense controlling—conceptions of reality.

Although such a brief summary of the developments of historical fiction, and the theory that deals with it, loses much of the nuance of a more in-depth discussion, the main threads of my argument should be clear. Just as the historian must ‘always be visible’ in their work,18 so too should the writer of historical fiction inscribe in their narrative the fictionality of their representation of the past. In creatively exploring contested histories, several recent Australian works of historical fiction have attempted to be ‘honourable’ in their interpretation of their source materials, but have done little to foreground the partiality of their interpretative processes. For instance, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River has attracted criticisms for elevating ‘fiction to a position of interpretive power over and above that of history’.19 However, there have been several recent Australian novels, such as Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) and Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), that have foregrounded the partiality of their representation of the past, and largely avoided any criticism on the basis of their historical content. Considering that Helen Darville’s The Hand that Signed the Paper was often justified on the grounds of its use of postmodern conventions, it provides an interesting case to refine our understanding of the use and limitations of postmodernism in historical fiction.20

4. Multiple Characters—One Voice The title of The Hand that Signed the Paper almost seems to point to the inner machinations of the narrative, to reveal—in short—the authorial presence that shapes its representation of the past. A postmodern narrative in the same vein as Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2010), The Hand that Signed the Paper follows Fiona Kovalenko’s investigation of her family’s involvement in the Holocaust. Most of the story occurs in Ukraine during Stalin’s agricultural reforms and the consequent famine of 1932-1933. The fictional world of The Hand that Signed the Paper posits that this famine was inflicted on the Ukrainian people by Stalin and Jewish communists, and uses this as a justification for the Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust. The overt significance of the title refers to Fiona’s uncle and father’s enthusiastic signing of the paper to join the SS Death Squads and participate in the mass shootings of Babi Yar and Treblinka.

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