After Humanism, What Forgiveness?

by Don Anderson

© all rights reserved

I did not read The Hand That Signed the Paper until after Australia Day, 1996, when I heard two of the judges of the 1995 Miles Franklin Award, Dame Leonie Kramer and Jill Kitson, defend their awarding that prize to Helen “Demidenko”‘s first novel. I had, however, read Andrew Riemer’s, book, The Demidenko Debate, whose claims for the novel, many of which I found untenable from the samples of her text he quoted would, given my respect for Andrew, have been sufficient to compel me to read the novel. The performances of Dame Leonie and Ms Kitson so offended me that they added fuel to the fire Andrew had lit

Having now read the novel I am of the opinion that Helen Demidenko did herself a disservice by adopting her Ukrainian persona. Her first novel can stand on its own imaginative legs. Indeed its achievement is all the more considerable if claims of faction or non-fiction are ignored. I cannot agree that the novel is anti-Semitic. Its narrative en abime and its polyphony make such a claim naive at best, though never has Samuel Beckett’s line, often quoted by Foucault, seemed more urgently relevant: “What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking.” Did I hear Oscar Wilde at my shoulder when I felt that “Demidenko’s” greatest sin was that her novel was often infelicitously written?

Reading “Demidenko”s’ novel only underscored my feeling that she had by acts of imagination and some incautious appropriation, keyed into crucial elements of post-1945 Western consciousness and ethical concern. Would it be preposterous to suggest that her novel was written within the context of awareness of the Holocaust, a context of sympathy for the slaughtered Jews, and that the “coldness” of her prose was all the more effective in that context? Her project recalls the Polish-born, Russian-reared, American (after 1957) Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 first novel, The Painted Bird, where “the horror, the horror” of the German occupation is seen through the eyes of a six year-old Polish boy. Kosinski’s novel, and his 1967 monograph, Notes of the Author on the Painted Bird, make instructive reading for the “Demidenko” debate. Kosinski quoted approvingly Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy: “That is why there is nothing and will be nothing–until you face your own complicity with this…your own humanity.” I thought also of Sylvia Plath’s appropriations, complexly addressed by George Steiner, among others: “Not God but a swastika/So black no sky could break through./ Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you.”

I became convinced, finally and reluctantly, that not to read “Demidenko’s” novel was an act of intellectual and, more importantly, moral cowardice, was to be complicit in the sin which Auden isolated in 1939: “Intellectual disgrace/Stares from every human face,/And the seas of pity lie/Locked and frozen in each eye.”


Don Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in English at Sydney University and a leading literary critic. This piece has been extracted with permission from the March issue of Australian Book Review.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]