The Spinoff Review of Books editor Steve Braunias writes an appreciation of Diana Wichtel, who has just been announced as the winner of the best book of non-fiction at the Ockham New Zealand national book awards.
There were a lot of writers who I wanted to meet when I first started composing terrible attempts at literature, and I thought the best way to go about it was to call on them. I lived in Wellington. I caught the bus to Seatoun and visited Denis Glover at his seaside cottage. He was hung-over, incoherent; it was winter, and the tide sloshed like dishwater against the shore, cold and greasy. I caught the train to Paremata and visited Sam Hunt at his boatshed. He made endless cups of tea in fine china. His famous dog Minstrel was around in these days and the two of them were so close that it was as though they finished each other’s sentences. I read magazine journalism as well as poetry and the writer I most wanted to meet was Diana Wichtel. I caught the train to Auckland.
She was appointed staff writer at the Listener in 1984. Word went around that she joined the magazine from the English department at Auckland University, where she was rumoured to have the office next door to CK Stead. I found this intensely interesting. I started freelancing for the Listener in 1986; I had been to university too but only to walk up and down Kelburn Parade when I was unemployed and could afford few entertainments. I saw Bill Manhire once. He wore a leather jacket. I thought: Tough guy. I brooded over that for years.
The idea of an academic writing journalism for a wide audience was exciting. Many of the best writers in the literary magazines of the day in England were Oxford or Cambridge trained, and brought their beautifully educated minds to the task of writing 800 words on some matter of passing interest. Diana was like that; you never thought of her as a don, just as someone very, very clever who was delighted to report on living people and the real world.
Right from the beginning her work was dazzling. To read her was to be unable to take your eyes off the page. There were other journalists at the time who wrote with a sense of joy. Geoff Chapple had a wonderful imagination, and could make a trip to the underground sewers of Auckland feel like exploring an enchanted kingdom. I cut out and kept the opening sentence to a column by Prue Dashfield. She was always very poised in The Dominion, and I felt her sentence made it permissible to write about yourself as a subject. She wrote, “I’m told I look good in plum.”
But the writer I wanted to meet was Diana. She had something so many other journalists thought they had, but didn’t, or had a bit of but not all that much, or had quite a lot of but nothing else: a sense of humour. She was so funny. She couldn’t stop being funny. She was funny over 800 words; over 1500, or 3000, she just got on with being even funnier.
I hate comedians. It’s all they ever do – reducing life to comedy, to gags, to whimsy. Diana was never a humourist. She was too funny for that; her sense of humour ran off at the edges of serious thought. Her writing has always understood that people lead complicated lives. Her wit kept the story racing along but beneath everything was an intellectual foundation which included the rare quality of wisdom. To this day, in her weekly television reviews and fortnightly profiles, there’s a depth and understanding to everything she writes – but most everything she writes at the Listener is between 800 and 3000 words, and for years and years and years her friends and her admirers wondered when she would apply her mind to a subject that demanded a book.
Driving to Treblinka is that book and the subject is the ultimate test of depth and understanding and wisdom – the Holocaust.
Hitler’s Final Solution moves behind or in front of every sentence. It’s a family memoir, of sorts; it’s about her father, Ben Wichtel, a Polish Jew who was rounded up by the Nazis, and jumped to safety from a train. Diana knew something of her dad’s story and not much more as a little girl growing up in Canada. Her mum was a Kiwi. The family emigrated to New Zealand in the 1960s. Ben stayed behind and Ben suffered and Ben became a kind of ghost, alive, then dead, his story barely remembered. But memory and history has a way of creeping up on you and making demands, and Driving to Treblinka is a record of Diana’s journey to the past, a tragic and haunted place.
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Complicated lives…It’s wrenching to read; imagine what it was like to write. I think I can. The story of Ben was a suffering delayed, and it will have taken its toll on her. All truly funny people have a capacity for despair. One thing that was immediately apparent about Diana when I came to Auckland to meet her was that her laughter was so generous: she found other people funny. She was always happier in an audience than being the centre of attention. She’s stepped out of the shadows – all those years without writing a book; all those years she put off wondering what happened to Ben Wichtel – and I bet she can’t wait to slip back into them.
For now, though, the limelight, and the award for best book of non-fiction at the 2018 Ockham New Zealand national book awards. It could scarcely have gone to anything else. She has written a masterpiece.
Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, $45) is available at Unity Books.
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