A Father for Lilja – Ryszard Merey (Lethe Press)

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“Art was a union of the father and mother worlds, of mind and blood. It might start in utter sensuality and lead to total abstraction; then again it might originate in pure concept and end in bleeding flesh. Any work of art that was truly sublime, not just a good juggler’s trick; that was filled with the eternal secret, like the master’s Madonna; every obviously genuine work of art had this dangerous, smiling double face, was male-female, a merging of instinct and pure spirituality.”

–Hermann Hesse, “Narcissus and Goldmund”

Merey gives us storytelling that requires us to gut the fish, then examine what’s been done; the offal of it sifted through our bloody fingers as we search for the essential meaning of what it is we have before us. Is this offal so awful? And look! The scales still shimmer rainbows! Or do they?

We have Jain, the protagonist, the diarist, the narrator, the little girl whom we learn becomes a software engineer as an adult. She works in code. She writes code: a precise, exacting exercise where there must be a beginning, a middle, and an end. Code requires logic; one event must necessarily lead to the next; premises and conclusions must be known before they are posited. Oh, but life is not like that. Jain understands this. Indeed, her story will, as she says, “…fold on itself like a snake eating its own tale and it was not my intention to make it that way, it is just the way it ended up coming into existence.”

The storytelling, the diary shows us Jain as a young girl, infatuated with her cousin, Viju, as she visits her grandfather’s estate in Provence. “Viju,” Jain tells us, “wasn’t a boy and she wasn’t a girl, though sometimes she was both and sometimes she was neither, but at most she was a person, nothing more and nothing less.”

Jain ages, becomes involved with Nine—to whom much of the diary is written—a “common” boy who eventually becomes a chef, whom Jain finds similar to Viju in appearance, and who, as a teenager, meets Emilio in an online chat room. Emilio, or as we learn later is called Lio or Lia, engages Nine online for some time before actually meeting him. Emilio eventually becomes Nine’s lover/companion in a relationship that defies convention. Lio/Lia is sexy but asexual, never taking his/her clothes off for sexual encounters, and ambivalent about Nine’s sexual forays with other men or women. And Jain, inextricably caught up in Nine’s and Emilio’s sphere, becomes one of those women.

This is a literary work with a “…dangerous, smiling double face…male-female…” It is indeed “…a merging of instinct and pure spirituality.” Merey’s prose is lovely, complex, questioning. This work is heavy in content and length; its bulk weighted in places with dialogues that seem a wee bit unnecessary, a little forced, a little TMI.

An early hint about what this storytelling will become is a reference to Ovid’s story about Iphis, a female child whose mother concealed her true sex because the father, Ligdus, had announced he would kill the child if it weren’t a boy. Eventually, Iphis is promised in marriage to a beautiful girl, and before the wedding the mother brings Iphis to the temple of Isis and prays that this conundrum can be somehow rectified. Isis comes through by transforming Iphis into a male, and the newly wedded couple lives happily ever after.

Gender assignment flows throughout the work as something vaguely wrong, or something that exists as a mere inconvenience without any substantive worth. It’s beside the point. It’s the wrapping quickly discarded because it is not essential to the prize inside.

Will there be a father for Lilja? Oh, I will not tell you the answer to that. What I will tell you is that this work is fascinating, so literary; it is a tale so full of meaty and vague references that the careful reader will understand that it was written with “…mind and blood…,” and the ultimate meaning of it all is perhaps left to the reader. I believe the author would agree.

“The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.”
–Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Reviewed by George Seaton

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