Bloodhound review: Ramona Koval goes in search of her father
Published: May 22, 2015 – 11:40AM
Bloodhound: Searching for my Father
Bloodhound is an investigation into the interdependency of the personal life narratives we construct for ourselves, and the rights but also responsibilities these narratives entail. It begins with an epigraph by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes from his 2002 essay collection This I Believe: “And will the dead person have exercised his right to carry a secret to his grave? After all, is that not one of the great rights of life, to know that we know something that we will never reveal to anyone?”
Ramona Koval worked as geneticist and microbiologist before she became ”a journalist, a professional asker of questions” – she makes this the hypothesis of her book and subjects it to vigorous testing.
The dead person in this instance is Koval’s mother, Sara, of whom we caught a captivating glimpse reclining on the family’s deep purple divan reading everything from Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 2012 biblio-memoir, By the Book. The secret Sara carried to her grave in 1977 aged 49 was her eldest daughter’s paternity.
Koval reveals she grew up suspecting that the man who raised her was not in fact her biological father – that she was, as her own daughter, a student of Jewish rabbinic law in Jerusalem, puts it later on, a mamzer: a bastard born from an adulterous relationship. How else to explain the blue eyes and fair curly hair, the blood type mismatch, that expensive Amour, Amour perfume her mother routinely wore between her breasts?
But the past isn’t a topic easily broached with Holocaust survivor parents: Koval tells us her mother had “this force field around her” and her father was so prone to “sobbing” when questions of a historical kind were posed that she had “learned not to open the floodgates”. Getting friends and associates of the family, also survivors, to shed light on the circumstances of her birth 40-plus years after the fact is also a fraught affair.
When Koval visits the 80-year-old Isabel to learn more about Mama’s working days at the clothing factory of her likely father, Max Dunne, she accidentally disinters a horrifying war memory from her – of a labour camp guard swinging a newborn baby by its legs and smashing its brains out against a wall in front of its mother.
Accompanying Koval as she turns up at strange houses with flowers to solicit photographs, recollections and cell samples in picaresque fashion is made great fun for the reader, largely due to her willingness as a narrator to poke fun at her younger self’s almost irresponsible doggedness and overactive imagination. A trip to far north Queensland to meet a potential half-brother, an ex-junkie turned horse whisperer, achieves a delicious combination of wackiness and suspense.
Yet Bloodhound is at its most gripping when it explicitly pits the child’s prerogative to know her origins against everybody else’s right to forget or remain forever ignorant. Relational memoirs inevitably set in motion ethical quandaries of this kind, but the stakes are so much higher when the dramatis personae involved have had their own sense of themselves vitiated in the camps, as Koval appreciates: “I was dependent for my evidence on damaged people who had been subjected to the brutal shifts of history. I needed their stories so that I could weave them into the beginnings of my own little life.”
This is the fate of the second generation: there is a hierarchy of suffering and, because of this, their stories are not their own. When the paternity trail goes cold Koval turns to the written and oral Holocaust testimony of strangers to understand Mama and Max better: she reads Hermann Langbein’s People in Auschwitz and Vladka Meed’s On Both Sides of the Wall and she watches Shoah Foundation videos to the point that she needs sleeping pills to knock herself out at night.
The urge to locate the unvoiced experiences of her parents in other people’s testimonies is understandable, even moving. One can imagine the giant centripetal force a desire to definitively belong generates all on its own. From time to time Koval shows an awareness of the potential pitfalls of this neediness: “Perhaps, I thought, it was self-absorbed to be looking for places where his story merged with mine.”
But by book’s end Koval has, in effect, synthesised and absorbed these stories into one story, her story, such that she claims an ownership of and a place in them that was, for this reader at least, fascinating but also somewhat disquieting.
Melinda Harvey is Lecturer in English at Monash University. Ramona Koval is a guest at Sydney Writers Festival.