Writing wrongs

By Michael Owen-Brown

The Advertiser, 16 November 2002


Helen Darville, Australia's most controversial author, has walked away from literature. The woman who in her early 20s penned the award-winning novel The Hand That Signed The Paper, but was then accused of being a fake, a plagiarist and a racist, says it is unlikely she will ever write again.


Now 31, she has symbolically put her Australian Literature Society gold medal up for auction to fund a law degree. In retrospect, she wishes she had never become an author. As well as the financial pressures and brutal criticism, Darville says she became increasingly uncomfortable mingling on the Australian literary scene.


"I really did think at the time there was this pretentiousness and elitism and view of ordinary Australians (as) racist, redneck scum," she says. "I wouldn't say I'm disillusioned; I'm just really, really over it."


Looking back on her writing career, Darville remains proud  of her novel but concedes much of her journalistic writing in the mid to late 1990s  was "simplistic drivel".


She insists it was the naivety of these columns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that fuelled a perception she was a racist, despite her background as a bleeding-heart leftie.


The Hand That Signed The Paper, the story of a Ukrainian peasant who joined the Nazi SS death squads in World War II after mistreatment by Stalin's "Jewish communists", was published in 1994 under the pseudonym Helen Demidenko. It won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Vogel Literary Award, but Darville was unprepared for the backlash when she was unmasked as the author.


She was condemned for falsifying a Ukrainian background and many critics argued the book sought to justify the Holocaust. Darville says the accusations that she was racist were false and hurtful but perhaps understandable because her newspaper columns of the time were biased against Israel.


"The chief crime of (my journalism) is not that it's badly written it's just the most simplistic drivel in the way that only a young left-wing idealogue can be," she said. "I was an Israel-basher, I wrote simplistic and anti-Israel crap and people thought the novel was the same. However, labelling someone like me a common or garden leftie as an anti-Semite risks draining the word of its meaning."


Darville says she attempted to contextualise the Holocaust and to explore how the mass murderers of World War II were driven to commit atrocities and yet could go home and be loving to their families.


She believes many critics blurred the distinction between her views and those of her characters.


"I still believe it stands up as an exploration of the depths of human evil and the ordinariness of human evil," she says. "If you assume your rapist ire murderer is not a human being and put him outside the circle of humanity, you will never, ever catch him and hold him accountable for his crimes. "It's very glib and silly to think we couldn't do the same things, given the same circumstances."


Darville says she used the pseudonym for two reasons. She wanted to protect the identity of  a death camp guard living in Australia, whom she had interviewed. She also feared the book would not be viewed as legitimate unless the author was thought to come from a Ukrainian background.


Despite all the acclaim and controversy, the Queenslander is not a wealthy woman and is struggling to afford university.


"That's one of the reasons why I've had to walk away from writing," she says. "It's just not financially viable for me to keep going at something where the absolute most I'm going to earn is between $35,000 and $40,000 (a book). "I'm not a greedy person but I figure if I'm going to cop that much aggro, I want to be paid better for it."


In 2000, Darville invited further criticism by interviewing revisionist historian David Irving, who denies that gas chambers were used by the Nazis.


The article picked holes in some of Irving's more outrageous statements but did not vilify him.


Predictably, critics such as Jeremy Jones now head of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry took this as further proof that Darville was anti-Semitic.


"I'd just got to the point where I was past (the criticism)," Darville says. "I just wanted to interview him and see where he was coming from, not because I thought what he said had credence."


But her final newspaper column in October last year seemed that of an author increasingly uncomfortable with her past.


"In the past, have I blurred the fine line between understanding and condoning atrocity? I hope I haven't, but fear, sometimes that I have," she wrote.


Helen Darville's Australian Literature Society medal will be auctioned in Sydney on Wednesday.    



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