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Helen Demidenko/Darville’s prize-winning novel The Hand that Signed the Paper is set against the backdrop of war crimes prosecutions in Australia but, surprisingly, we have not yet sought to evaluate the insights offered by the book in this context. The one major recent war crimes trial in Australia runs to several thousand pages of evidence, much of it a dry record of technical legal arguments. Yet, buried in the transcript are stories told by elderly Ukrainian and Jewish witnesses, which make Darville’s account appear by comparison to be a weak and misleading caricature of human experience in a tragic time. The tales told by real people are more poignant and strange than any fiction of “faction”.
There is much to be gained from understanding the way in which an ethnically diverse people lived together and died in front of one another. If we look carefully, we also see reflected in Australia’s attempt to come to grips with an event as cataclysmic as the Holocaust images of our own contemporary culture. The judges in the war crimes trials and the judges who awarded prizes to Demidenko/Darville demonstrated a willingness to engage with the complexities of our multicultural identity. Yet, their (and our) pride in our emerging cosmopolitanism was also matched by a wide-eyed parochialism. We did not have the experiential base to fairly judge the truth claims of tales from another place. In the case of the war crimes trials this made us too sceptical; in popular culture it made us too gullible
Towards the end of the Polyukhovich war crimes trial, one of the elderly Ukrainian witnesses shocked the courtroom by recounting something that he had hitherto failed to disclose. Describing his involvement as a conscripted labourer forced to fill in the killing pit after the massacre, he recounted:
The effect of this chilling story on the courtroom should have been devastating. An old man, a hero of the great patriotic war, had just graphically described his realisation that he had probably buried a child alive in a bloody mass grave. Instead, his account was treated with scepticism, evidence of, at best, a peasant’s rhetorical embellishment to give weight to his own testimony. The defence was grateful for an opportunity to discredit his testimony because of its “excesses”. Even the prosecution lawyers were somewhat embarrassed at their own witness’s surprising revelation–he had “gilded the lily”. The alternative possibility, that the old man had simply told the truth of what had taken place on that day, did not carry much weight with sceptical Australian lawyers and, presumably, jury members.
Ironically, the experiences of real people told in a setting where they were bound to tell the truth were judged “incredible”. By contrast, fictional stories of non-existent people have been held, by sections of the literary establishment, to be credible because of their apparent authenticity.
Kathy Laster lectures in the Department of Legal Studies at the Australian National University. This piece is extracted with permission from the December 1995 issue of Meanjin.