Non-fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 400 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.
So begins Magda Szubanksi’s extraordinary memoir Reckoning, which is as much a love letter to her dad as it is an autobiography of her own life.
Most British readers will know Magda from the Australian sit-com Kath & Kim, where she plays the sports-obsessed unlucky-in-love Sharon Strzelecki. But she also starred in the 1995 Hollywood film Babe, the story of a pig who wants to be a sheepdog, and appeared in a slew of comedy shows from the late 1980s onwards. She first came to my attention in 1986 when she was in The D Generation, a comedy sketch show created and written by a group of Melbourne University students, and later Fast-Forward, another comedy sketch show that went on to become Australia’s highest rating TV production of that type.
Not your usual celebrity memoir
That aside, you don’t need to know who Magda is to appreciate this book. It may be billed as a memoir, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, it tells the story of Magda’s life, but it’s got an intellectual rigour to it that you don’t often find in your usual run-of-the-mill celebrity autobiography.
It covers some very hard-hitting topics including relationships between fathers and daughters, what it is to be an immigrant (Magda was born in Liverpool, England, to a Scottish mother and Polish father, and they immigrated to Australia when she was five years old), intergenerational guilt, survivor’s guilt and “genetic memory”, the Holocaust and the Polish resistance, politics, feminism, mental health and repressed sexuality.
The latter is a major part of Magda’s story, for she kept her own sexuality a secret for much of her adult life, frightened not only of being rejected by her loved ones but by the Australian public and the film and television industry in which she’d forged such a successful career. Her struggle with this element of herself is threaded throughout the narrative and her inability to come to terms with it publicly manifested itself in anxiety, depression and over-eating. She eventually came out live on TV in 2012 when she realised it was time to finally stand up and “do the right thing”:
It was possibly the most nervous I have ever been. My breathing was constricted but I could still make a sentence and even a joke. When the guys [the hosts of the TV show The Project] asked me how I identified I replied, “I am absolutely not straight. I wouldn’t define myself as bisexual either. I would say I am gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-a-little-bit-not-gay-gay-gay-gay. Unfortunately, there’s not actually a word to describe me, so I have to express myself through the medium of dance.”
Another thread running throughout Magda’s life is her father’s dark history. He was just 15 when the Nazi’s invaded his home town of Warsaw. Most Poles fled, but the Szubanskis stayed put. Magda’s father formed his own “private army” — “a vagrant bunch of childhood friends roaming around doing whatever damage they could, especially killing Germans” — before he was properly recruited, aged 19, to become a non-commissioned officer of the Polish execution squad known as Unit 993/W Revenge Company. This top-secret unit was tasked with assassinating agents of the Gestapo and Polish traitors. “It sounds like a movie,” writes Magda, “It wasn’t.”
In a city where everyone had something to be afraid of, those who aided the Nazis lived in fear of people like my father. His unit comprised both men and women. […] They targeted collaborators who gave the names of resistance members to the Gestapo. Unit 993/W also assassinated Poles who told the Gestapo where Jews were hiding. And so the Nazi collaborators were sentenced to death by the Polish underground courts. Despite the chaos of war, due legal process was followed. The traitor would be tried in absentia in a court of law and the sentence would be carried out by my father’s unit. Then, when the time was right, they would run in, read them the list of crimes of which they had been found guilty, and shoot them.
During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Magda’s father was captured and sent to a POW camp. He escaped while on the notorious Lamsdorf Death March, but was recaptured and sent to two more POW camps. Eventually, he was liberated by the Russians and made his way to Scotland, where he reinvented himself as an Englishman, married Magda’s mother, a Scot of Irish extraction, and tried to forget his past. He never saw his parents again.
Clearly a man of courage, who had a strong instinct for survival, Magda describes him as:
… warmhearted, friendly, engaging, intelligent, generous, humorous, honourable, affectionate, arrogant, blunt, loyal. He was a family man. He was handsome, although he did not have heroic stature. He was five foot four. He was stylish, fashion-conscious; a dandy even. […] He loved tennis, he loved ballet, he loved good conversation. Out there in the Melbourne suburbs […] you would never have guessed that he was capable of killing in cold blood. But he was. Poor bastard.
For Magda, the struggle is to reconcile in her own head (and heart) the man she loved with the man who was capable of shooting people dead, and much of this book explores that murky territory, trying to put events into some kind of context and fleshing out the ambiguities and moral complexities of what it was to live through the Second World War. Was it okay to kill people if you were on the “right” side?
An intimate read
Reckoning is a deeply personal read — sometimes uncomfortably so — but Magda is an honest, forthright guide, and her love for her parents (and her siblings, especially older sister Barbara) shine through. This is not a sentimental read, nor is it a self-pitying one, but it’s a warm, intelligent, brave and occasionally eye-opening one. I found it utterly captivating and came away from it feeling as if Magda had somehow exonerated the ghosts of her family’s past — or at least come to terms with them.
Unsurprisingly, Reckoning has won a slew of awards in Australia, including ABIA Book of the Year, ABIA Biography of the Year, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, Indie Award for Non-Fiction, and Nielsen BookData Booksellers’ Choice Award.
It has just been published in the UK and will be released in the US and Canada next month.
As an aside, do watch this clip of one of Magda’s most ingenious creations, Lynne Postlewaite, whose catch-phrase “I said pet, I said love…” still makes me laugh: