Australian's tall tale makes prize fools of the critics

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The Independent Online


When Helen Demidenko won Australia's most prestigious literary prize for her first novel, purporting to be based on her Ukrainian family history, the 24-year-old author shot to fame. Yesterday she was in hiding and the literary world was reeling, after her story was exposed as a hoax and her identity was revealed as Helen Darville, daughter of British immigrants.

The Demidenko affair has rocked the literary establishment, which showered the young Brisbane woman with accolades when her novel, The Hand That Signed the Paper, won the 1995 Miles Franklin Award, the country's most coveted literary prize.

Ms Demidenko's book is set in a Nazi concentration camp in Ukraine during the Second World War. It suggests Jews andCommunists were responsible for the forced famine in Ukraine in the Thirties, and portrays Ukrainians as collaborators with the Nazis in the persecution of the Jews.

The Miles Franklin judges said: "Helen Demidenko's first novel displays a powerful literary imagination coupled to a strong sense of history." One, Jill Kitson, described the book as "a searingly truthful account of terrible wartime deeds".

Other critics attacked it as anti-Semitic. Gerard Henderson, executive director of The Sydney Institute, a think-tank, described the book as "the vilest ideological propaganda".

Ms Demidenko claimed her account was based on stories from her own family history. "Half my family are Ukrainian," she told the media, dressed in Ukrainian national costume. "They could remember what it was like living through the occupation of the Nazis.''

She said that her father was a Ukrainian taxi-driver who had met her Irish-born mother on a refugee ship to Australia after the war. Her father had just missed being drafted into the SS because he had flat feet. Most of her father's family, she said, "were killed by Jewish Communist Party officials".

At the weekend, she was unmasked as Helen Darville, who had grown up in Brisbane and whose middle-class parents, Harry and Grace Darville, emigrated from England. The source of the disclosure was Robin Kleinschmidt, her former Brisbane school principal.

Mrs Darville, admitting: "We're Poms", said her daughter had become interested in Ukrainian history at school. Helen's brother, Iain, said she had invented her family history as a "marketing exercise" to make her novel credible. "It made the story seem more real. She did it to protect the family."

Some big literary guns claimed the fabrication made a mockery of the award. Donald Horne, an author and commentator, said: "The revelation of Helen Demidenko's pen-name matters, because she used her alleged Ukrainian connection to support what she said was the veracity of her story. The people who should be on trial are the Miles Franklin judges, who are so besotted with certain theories of what makes literature that they have lost all sense of proportion about what also makes fact."

Allen & Unwin, Ms Darville's publishers, stood by the book, saying the row "has ... no bearing on the quality and importance of the book". As Ms Demidenko cancelled speaking engagements, she released a statement: "I have two names," it said. "Demidenko and Darville. I was known at school as Helen Darville."