Many readers know Ramona Koval as one of Australia’s most respected literary journalists and broadcasters. Few would be aware that for decades she has been tormented to the point of obsession by a secret that her mother took to her grave: was her mother’s husband, the man Koval had always called “Dad”, really her father? Both Koval’s parents were Holocaust survivors; they survived partly on their ability to hide, disguise themselves, and keep secrets.
Koval, who had only ever felt scant connection to her dad, begins to suspect that her biological father was another Holocaust survivor, Max Dunne, with whom her mother may have had an affair. Koval, the “bloodhound” of the title, finds out all she can about Dunne from documents and living relatives, does extensive research on the psychology and experience of Holocaust survivors, and travels to Poland and Germany. DNA testing reveals that she and her sister did have different fathers – but which one? The test Dunne’s son agrees to take is less conclusive. If Koval grasps every straw that would connect her to Dunne, she avoids any clue that links her more closely to her dad. Even his bunions prompt her to see a surgeon about her own, as though to erase any possible resemblance.
Her unrelenting mission to discover her biological and genetic heritage troubles those around her. Her (half-)sister and a daughter are among those who express ambivalence about the project. Koval considers whether it is good enough just to know, as the Yiddish poet Dovid Hofshteyn has written, “We spring from rocks/from rocks ground by millstones of time.” Yet she is too stubborn – and too troubled by what she recognises as her desire for a father figure and a secure identity – to let it go.
Koval is a good sleuth, but her attachment to her research sometimes causes the narrative to buckle under the weight of trivial, even banal detail: the story of her German class, with its “inscrutable” Korean and “little” Japanese classmates, was particularly excruciating. Her dad’s self-absorption was one of the things that infuriated Koval most, but by her own account they may have had more than bunions in common. If Koval had invested as much energy into understanding and forgiving her dad as in disproving their relationship, she might have achieved another kind of self-knowledge. At the very least, it would have made Bloodhound a more generous memoir. CG
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Ramona Koval, Bloodhound". Subscribe here.