In Bloodhound, Ramona Koval tracks down family secrets
Ramona Koval describes herself as a ‘‘professional asker of questions’’. A much-loved presenter of ABC Radio National’s erstwhile programs Books and Writing and The Book Show and writer for various publications, Koval leaves press releases in her wake, crafting revealing conversations with attentive incisiveness.Bloodhound follows By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life (2012) and shifts that attention to the secret-keeping in her family history and to the nature and pursuit of truth.
Koval was brought up in Melbourne by her parents, Holocaust survivors who migrated after the war. Bloodhound begins with the epigraph ‘‘Don’t ask questions about fairytales’’ and follows Koval’s uneasy decision to explore a sense that the man who raised her was not her biological father.
Early in the book, the first person shifts into the second to evoke ‘‘the kind of day you remember from school years, trudging home, when the sun made you squint so you couldn’t see the road in front of you’’. As in Paul Auster’s second-person memoirs Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior (2013), this dramatises a split self squinting into the too-bright light of disclosure.
In Auster’s work, this split begins with a previous memoir, The Invention of Solitude (1982), in which he tries to discover more about his elusive father, a process haunted by a sense of transgression: ‘‘Each time I opened a drawer or poked my head into a closet, I felt like an intruder, a burglar ransacking the secret places of a man’s mind.’’
This glimpse of a second person in Bloodhound is part of the unblinking self-awareness of this memoir, as though Koval herself were one of her interlocutors. She studies her ‘‘pathetic need to belong’’ and anticipates an imagined reader’s response: “you may well be thinking I am being whiny and unreasonable”. The line of questioning to which she subjects herself reminds me less of her gracious interviews and more of Helen Garner’s steady self-analysis in the service of truth in all its contradiction and ambivalence.
Although part of this involves self-lacerating wit (Koval thinks, for instance, that a systematic study of bunions on the feet of patients in her father’s nursing home might provide the evidence of inheritance she craves), more often it is assured and unsparing.
In particular, Koval is conscious of the ethical dimension to certain lines of questioning and of responsibilities she might (or might not) have to a parent to ‘‘look after him in a way he had never looked after me’’. As dementia encloses him, Koval’s father comments: ‘‘I think we have met before’’, aptly articulating the distance between them.
Bloodhound is part of a strand of memoirs, like Auster’s, about the writer-child’s quest to discover a lost or dishonest parent. Like Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy (1990), Koval’s exploration is an act both of pursuit and mourning, as though the parent-subject is at once in flight and already lost. This kind of memoir carries the wounds of its own impossibility, a more vulnerable version of the biographer’s loss imagined by academic Richard Holmes as always involving empathy, futility and longing for the receding subject.
Koval writes that her quest ‘‘started with a hunt for a mysterious father but … morphed into a hunt for a mysterious mother too’’. When, after her mother’s death, Koval realises that her few family photographs must have been hidden in a piece of furniture donated to charity, she comments: ‘‘I was never privy to her secrets’’.
But her mother’s fierce privacy thins at times, flaring into harsh revelation. When a teenage Koval takes a summer job in a knitting factory in Collingwood, her mother shows her the small room at the side of the large open factory floor and claims it to be a place the factory owner can take any girl he wants for sex. Later, Koval reflects that this baffling encounter was part of her mother’s askew ‘‘secret-keeping’’, obliquely introducing her daughter to an ugly scenario she herself may have experienced.
This is a lesson Koval files away with other mysterious lessons such as ‘‘being careful not to fall asleep in the snow, no matter how tired and hungry you were, because you could freeze to death’’. Koval’s mother survived the war in Warsaw by adopting a false identity, aided by her fair hair and blue eyes. Surviving, as Polish sociologist Malgorzata Melchior has put it, by a strategy of ‘‘camouflage, mimicry and dissolution in their social environment’’, involves perfecting the capacity to lie continuously.
Well before becoming the mother of children who may not have been her husband’s, Koval’s mother must have been forced to develop these abilities.
In this and other ways, Koval’s quest to discover the truth of her parentage intersects with that of the second-generation Holocaust survivor and the experience Marianne Hirsch has termed ‘‘postmemory’’. Hirsch first used the term in relation to Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize-winning graphic auto/biographical exploration of his father’s experiences of Auschwitz, to describe the relationship to the personal and cultural trauma experienced by a generation after the survivors. The partial, fleeting images and stories with which this generation — including Spiegelman, Koval and writers such as Doris and Lily Brett and Anna Rosner Blay — grew up have a profound impact, transmitted as they are in a culture of their parents’ trauma and the silence, empathy and imaginative investment surrounding it.
In Bloodhound, evidence is slippery. Names have been anglicised or carelessly transcribed; parts of history have vanished with the memories of the murdered generations. Koval’s pursuit of testimony and clarity meets hierarchies of suffering and varieties of concealment.
At one stage, writer and Shoah survivor Jacob Rosenberg suggests Koval write a fictional version of her pursuit, making it a detective novel. Koval’s painstaking collection of evidence and tracing of clues is as compelling as fiction, but, as Rosenberg himself wrote, ‘‘sometimes even the cruellest truth is preferable to the gentlest lie’’. In Bloodhound, Koval is hunter and prey to truths that taunt and console.
Felicity Plunkett is poetry editor at UQP.
Ramona Koval will be a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival, May 18-24.
Bloodhound: Searching for My Father
By Ramona Koval
Text Publishing, 275pp, $32.99