Ramona Koval’s parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland who settled in Melbourne. Koval learned little about their lives when she was a child, but her suspicion that the man who raised her was not her biological father intensifies as she grows up. The marriage was unhappy and ended in divorce when Koval was a young woman, in the 1970s, just a few months before her mother’s early death from cancer.
Two decades later, in the 1990s, Koval resolves to find out the truth, embarking on a quest to discover the secret of her paternity. An old friend of her mother’s has offered a clue she follows up on, then a photograph arrives in the mail, and Koval is invited to tea with the family of a man who just might have been her biological father.
Koval moves further into her investigation, drawing on her skills as a journalist as well as her early training in genetics and microbiology, sending DNA swabs from herself, her sister, and a horse whisperer who might be her half-brother to the lab for analysis. Her quest takes her to tropical Queensland, to rural Poland, and to German language classes, and she spends years dealing with bureaucrats in Poland and Australia in the hope of discovering the truth.
The result is an extraordinary book. The mix of detective work with the personal, family story makes for a unique memoir—a unique kind of memoir: a memoir that reads like a detective novel. I can think of nothing like it.
The humour is a godsend, in the midst of so much of the grimness and bureaucracy, and it really is funny. There are great little stories within the story of her search, itself within the big story of the Holocaust and survivors and survivors’ children.
Koval has heard wartime stories about classmates betraying Jewish children to the Nazis, so she refuses to let on that she is herself Jewish at her Melbourne primary school. One unexpected result is that she is called on to play Mary in the upcoming school Nativity play. Her Mama storms into the principal’s office to tell him the family is Jewish, which prompts him to bemoan the fact that there’s no one now to play Mary, as there is no understudy, at which point Mama reminds him that Mary was herself Jewish.
Later, Koval travels to Auschwitz with recording equipment, learning from the guards on arrival that she needs authorization. This prompts her to ask if she’s the only Jew turned away from Auschwitz. There are many moments of comedy, sometimes black as can be, but humour is humour.
Her mother, fair-haired and blue-eyed, survived when her Orthodox family sends her away, knowing that she alone might be able to pass as a Polish Catholic. With a single potato in her pocket, the only food the family had left—where they're going, her own mother tells her, they will have no need for food—she walks the hundred kilometres to Warsaw at the age of fourteen and disappears into the city. She comes across beautifully, in every way: as a fourteen-year-old, as a young woman, and as a mother to Koval and her younger sister.
Koval waited to write Bloodhound after several of the key characters have died, and she treats most of them (the main exception being her Dad, the man who raised her, who clearly tried her patience) with great, great delicacy. So difficult, in such an emotionally-charged book.
At one point she says that she has discovered how determined she is. Indeed. Determined to find out, and determined to tell the tale. This has the feel of a book that had to be written.
I got to know Ramona Koval when she was host of ABC Radio National’s daily Book Show and I was heading up the Blue Metropolis festival in Montreal. We met every August in the yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and I attended many of the events she hosted with star writers and later broadcast across Australia. She was the most engaging and impressive literary interviewer I have ever seen, and in time I was able to persuade her to come to Montreal to host and record events at Blue Metropolis, as well.
Now devoting her time mostly to writing, she published By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life (Text) in Fall 2013, a delightful memoir through some of the most memorable books she has read since childhood, and now Bloodhound (Text, 2015). As soon as I realized what the subject of this new book is, I was dying to read it, frustrated that it took so long to get it from the US, but that’s ok. This is a book that will last.
© 2015, Linda Leith
Photo: Julian Gollner
Montreal novelist and essayist Linda Leith is the founder of Blue Metropolis Montreal International Festival and the owner of Linda Leith Publishing. Her most recent book is Writing in the Time of Nationalism, which appeared in French as Écrire au temps du nationalisme (Leméac, 2014; translation by Alain Roy).