LILY LA TIGRESSE
by Alona Kimhi
Translated by Dalya Bilu
Dalkey Archive Press, 2013
Like “narrative” or “culture,” “magical realism” is one of those terms that has always boggled critics. Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban novelist, probably coined the term in 1949, and for him it entailed a matter-of-fact mingling of the mundane and fantastical, specifically in Latin American fiction. Fredric Jameson used it more broadly, finding its expression in film and other national literatures. In a 1986 essay in Critical Inquiry, he attributed the rise of the genre, which he likens to a hallucinogenic drug, to the “the waning of larger historical perspectives and narratives.” In fact, he sees it as “a possible alternative to the narrative logic of contemporary postmodernism,” whatever that means.
Perhaps Alona Kimhi, the Ukrainian-born Israeli, has an answer. Her second novel, Lily la Tigresse, offers enough hallucinogenic drugs, and other mind-bending substances, including love, to set the reader awhirl. While it isn’t set in Latin America, we get the same sweltering streets, the same rampant corruption, the same plaguing lust and despair, as we would in a Marquez novel. Or perhaps Bulgakov, given Kimhi’s Soviet heritage.
The novel centers on three contemporary Israelis: a 112kg, sexually-craving, dental hygienist named Lily; a Russian-born transsexual named Ninush; and a foul-mouthed cabdriver named Michaela. How they meet frames much of the plotting, but suffice it to say they collectively adopt a young tiger, engage in numerous, short-lived trysts, and exhibit more petting and panting than would befit the Tel Aviv Zoo. The book is subtitled, “A Melodrama,” though picaresque would probably be more appropriate, given their rakish pursuits.
The narrative never dates itself exactly, but it presumably occurs sometime after the start of the Second Intifada, when Tel Aviv’s brothels have begun to empty out. The book’s central target, to the extent it has one, is trafficking—of adults, children, animals, drugs—and, more broadly, the reek of corruption pervading the Holy Land. Lily, the book’s narrator, even sounds an historical note when she summarizes Nina, the Soviet-born wife of a pimp:
Like many of her compatriots, the “perestroika” had provided her with the opportunity for a new realism and the establishment of a new value system…She believed with all her heart that one of the advantages of the liberal school of thought pervading our entry into the twenty-first century was the new tolerance towards old ideas, which had been out of bounds since the women’s revolution.
Thus, Nina becomes an accomplice in managing her husband’s affairs, and while she claims to take a domestic backseat in the ordeal, feeding herself off the riches her husband’s cruel trade provides, it is she, Nina, who actually evicts Ninush from their household and thereby triggers the character’s demise. Yet it’s also hard not to see Lily, or perhaps Kimhi herself, as taking aim at the feminist movement, with its “hoarse voices against pornography and feminine charms.”
In fact, if the book has a thesis, it’s that beauty is hardly skin-deep. An unnamed “writer” in a cab reiterates this sentiment when he explains, “truth is on the surface. It’s simply unpleasant, which is why people aren’t in a hurry to pay attention to it.” In an era of Israeli Idol and street-displayed prostitutes, everyone must compete, the narrative reminds us, and it’s foolish to pretend that beauty resides inside of us. Within that cruel spectrum teeter the likes of the misshapen and deformed, the untoothed, the transsexual, even the massively obese. And they are under no illusions, nor is the narrator, about what kind of prospects they have. Which is why, as Lily says, “laughter is the true salvation.”
This book is unsparing in its critique, but it’s also seminal in terms of launching its indictment of Israel—a society that, in Kimhi’s view, is no more generous or compassionate than the barbarous terrain of Europe, not to mention the U.S.S.R. To be a nation like any other, as Herzl sought, Israel has consigned itself—particularly its most vulnerable segments, women, children, and foreigners—to the meat market’s shelves. It’s probably fair to say that most tourists to the Holy Land, even the readers of this magazine, have, on their way to the shuk, or the heavenly, citadelled walls, taken note of the foreigners sweeping the streets, or frying up tofu, or standing knee-deep in the fields. While the global media centers on Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians—a subject on which this novel remains curiously mum—Israel’s critics somehow fail to note that nearly as many Thais and Filipinos labor under equally horrible conditions. That doesn’t even include the thousands of women and children who are smuggled in annually. Would it be a stretch to say, then, that fantastical fiction such as this offers up “a possible alternative to the narrative logic of contemporary postmodernism?” Or is it simply suggesting that capitalism has run its course?
Of course, the book is much more complicated than that, and, if anything, it focuses on the peculiar psychology of a deeply wounded individual. To the extent it has a flaw, it fails to really connect us with Lily, the book’s narrator—not because it doesn’t care enough about her, but because the moments when we might see her in her most vulnerable state are swept aside in mythic prose. Example: in a desperate binge, Lily tries to seduce every man she comes across—all unsuccessfully, of course. And rather than showing us how she might feel in these encounters, we’re simply told that her “face is the face of Medusa, [her] hair—a nest of snakes.” Elsewhere, at the end, when Lily enacts her revenge, the magic realism takes over, and—without giving away too much of the plot—she merges with an animal. A nice literary move. But it doesn’t quite show us how she feels.
Both omittances might be part of the point, namely that anguish is internal, and ugly, and not worth presenting to the reader. But if fiction can’t do it, what can?
On some level, Lily la Tigresse is as much a product of the values it disdains. It makes ample use of prostitutes, freaks, the foreign and the fat, but it doesn’t really empathize with them as much as it revels in their despair. Again, part of that might be narratological—Lily herself is not attuned to her suffering, and the reader has to ponder it for her. But one also has to wonder just how committed the author—a former model herself, apparently—really is to these lives she commingles and molds.
All in all, this is a powerful work, and one that’s luminously translated by the eminent Dalya Bilu, but it’s worth asking whether Lily La Tigresse, in all its comic absurdity, doesn’t fall victim to the very drugs its characters imbibe.