Arts & Culture

“Going to the Circus”

Alona Kimhi’s startling novel, Lily La Tigresse, reflects a fun-house vision of contemporary Israel. The grotesque, darkly comic and fantastic tale surely draws its inspiration from Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and no doubt from Val Lewton’s classic film … Read More

By / November 19, 2008

Alona Kimhi’s startling novel, Lily La Tigresse, reflects a fun-house vision of contemporary Israel. The grotesque, darkly comic and fantastic tale surely draws its inspiration from Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and no doubt from Val Lewton’s classic film Cat People as well. Lily, the book’s overweight and romantically unlucky protagonist, discovers a wild freedom in part through her friendship with a Russian prostitute, Ninush. The characters undergo one metamorphosis after another as they explore a bizarre world of sex and perversion that turns Tel Aviv into a freak show. – Adam Rovner, translations editor I imprison my belly and breasts in a black bra and panties, thread my arms into the sleeves of a dress whose dark crimson velvet celebrates itself under the light, stretch it over my thighs, my buttocks, turning from side to side in front of the mirror, and suddenly I am overcome by a feeling of satisfaction–something in the way the dress hugs my body covers up its vulnerability and makes it strong and protected and even aggressive, demanding respect and attention. Outside it is already completely dark and Ninush still hasn’t arrived. I have no doubt at all that Leon is not pleased by the fact that we are going out together. We could of course have spared him this information, but one of Ninush’s peculiarities is a hopeless inability to produce an active lie. Which is not, by the way, because Ninush is a particularly honest person. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Her unique biography has helped her to develop a system of morality that’s somewhere between Nietzschean and anarchist: stealing jewelry and giving it away–no problem. Filching small sums of money from Leon’s wallet or silk underwear and cosmetics from department stores–like second nature to her. Forging signatures on checks, walking out of restaurants without paying, borrowing things for an unlimited period of time simply because she feels that she will enjoy them more than their original owners–definitely no problem at all. She is so quick fingered that she can open a Gucci bag with a zipper and a lock without its owner noticing. Only in recent months has she begun to wean herself from the compulsive habit of stealing simply for the sake of the elegance of the execution. She is a master of deception, distraction, and dwelling on the insignificant. Concealing information when the people around you are going out of their minds trying to solve some mystery? Ninush at your service! Total or partial forgetfulness of details from the past necessary in order to construct a coherent picture for a social worker or mate? She is a world-class expert.
But to actively tell a lie, in other words to express in words something incompatible with objective reality–here the failure of my friend is far graver than a simple lack of talent: in this area she is afflicted by absolute honesty. To a question like, "So what are you up to this evening?" which Leon presumably asked without any concern because he is accustomed to us spending most of our time together in my apartment, Ninush is incapable of answering with clear-eyed simplicity: "I’m popping round to Lily’s place. We’re going to see Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves for the third time, a film about a woman’s great love for her husband." The only option available to her is to mumble in her soft-voweled Russian voice: "We’re going to the circus. Lily’s treat." My preparations are almost complete. My choice of shoes may be less than that of Imelda Marcos, but nevertheless I belong to the category of women who would rather starve to death than compromise on quality footwear. And why not? To quote my parents out of context–what do I work so hard for? My feet with their bleeding toenails may boast a size 41, but they are as white as the feet of a pampered little girl. I push them carefully into a pair of platform shoes designed by Stephane Kélian, and walk up and down my bedroom as if to test the finished product of my public self, like an actor testing his voice before going on stage, patting his chest and singing "ma mo mi ma mo" through his nose. The agonies of jealousy are not to be taken lightly. Certainly not in those who are enslaved to them, marionettes in the hands of the green-eyed monster. If Leon’s way of expressing his jealousy was less violent, I might even have felt a certain degree of compassion in the shallow layer of ice in my heart devoted to him. For who knows the tortures of the trampled heart like I do! The smell of the alien shampoo wafting from Amikam when he came home wet-haired from a visit to his ex-wife was like the stench of the sulfurous fumes rising from the swaps of hell. But in everything concerning this great subject I am a sworn disciple of restraint and self-control. The pain, the rage, the humiliation, and the rest of the atoms that make up the molecules of jealousy are pure poison, and we should never allow them to take over our emotional lives. In the soul of a woman seriously celebrating her sexuality there is no room for the archaic pangs of jealousy. I have learnt to strangle them at birth, and only sometimes a wild beating of the heart bears witness to those wounds to my sense of self, delivered by the real and imaginary betrayals of my lieutenant colonel. Needless to say, Leon is innocent of any such skills, as well as any revolutionary ideas calling for the substitution of the old and bourgeois by the new and liberated.
Leon is a jealous man. Jealous in the most old-fashioned sense of the word. To his credit let it be said that his jealousy is not based on the fact that he himself is the kind of cheat who tends to suspect others of being tarred with the same brush. Leon is as faithful to Ninush as a crow. There is no point in trying to gild the lily here–women are not in the habit of falling at Leon’s feet or driving him crazy with their seductions, but nevertheless, in view of the rarity of the virtue in question, I prefer not to be petty and to honor Leon’s faithfulness without taking into account the concrete reasons for its existence. Apart from the question of his fidelity, however, the reasons for Leon’s jealousy are less than noble; on the face of it you could say that inherent in his jealousy is the assumption that the whole of virile humanity shares with him the view that Ninush is the most desirable of creatures, and this being the case no one can withstand the allure of her existence; a touching hypothesis, characteristic of all naive lovers. But as far as Leon is concerned, this is only the ostensible reason; mainly he is afraid that Ninush herself is simple minded and craves human warmth to such an extent that she is liable to be tempted by any indecent proposal, as long as it is accompanied by the appropriate civilities. Here I have to admit that this assumption on his part is not far from the truth. Only a few days ago when I left Ninush standing next to a billboard and went to get us a couple of cones of Ben and Jerry’s, I was horrified to discover her on my return negotiating with a group of soldiers on leave who had come to Tel Aviv from Bat Yam and were proposing that she spend the night with them in exchange for a tablet of Ecstasy and a meal in the "Hatikva Grill." As I have already mentioned above, Leon is aware of this kind of behavior and does all he can to prevent Ninush from going out alone. In this sense, to our great good fortune, he encourages our friendship. My authoritative presence at her side can always stop her from providing oral sex services to any team of building workers on the corner of Melchett and Bar Ilan, just because they asked her to.
And here I have to wonder at the depth of the atavistic instincts remaining in a warped and tamed animal like Homo sapiens; with secret, invisible feelers men sense that Ninush is– Ninush. However cool and polite she may be, when she flows through the streets of our dusty town the interested parties know at once that she is a damaged, exploitable creature. A wounded, inwardly bleeding creature. And it is this hidden blood they smell, as though it were coming from a raw, well-aged fillet of steak, set beneath their noses in an expensive restaurant. The mutual recognition of the hangman and the victim works in Ninush’s case like a brilliant illustration for a lesson in the anatomy of the soul. Ninush, by the way, never experiences herself as exploited. As far as she is concerned, every encounter with others is a trade-off in which each side receives what it deserves. This drives Leon even crazier. The thought that she is capable of surrendering her body of her own free will ignites oil wells of rage and anxiety in him. At the beginning of their relationship, before he became aware of her passive promiscuity, Leon tended to trust her, placing his faith in the whole package of advantages his love bestowed on her. Who could believe that any sane woman would dare to endanger the happiness and security that had fallen to her lot for the sake of a chance fuck with a couple of foreign workers from Ghana encountered in a city square? In the course of time he discovered that Ninush’s answer to any offer of affection she received would always be the same as Molly Bloom’s answer to the marriage proposal in Joyce–yes. Yes I will. Yes. This regrettable discovery led to a minor scandal including and alternating between blows, tears, talks into the night, threats, and didactic explanations accompanied by tender looks. At the end of this Odyssey thrashing out the rules of their life together, Ninush swore on everything she had left to swear by (not much, dear reader, not much) that from now on she would behave with the restraint and modesty becoming a woman bound to a man. But alas, it was already too late: Leon’s jealousy had been released from the dungeons where it had been confined and broken into his cognitive and emotional life, flooding every remnant of sanity. I finish fixing my hair. Dozens of hairpins raise the torrent of my dark hair onto the top of my head, in a clever construction that leaves single strands of hair falling onto my nape and forehead in artificial nonchalance. Poor Leon. Who could have guessed that the same passionate emotion he longed for with all his indifferent heart would turn his existence into a living hell. And so it happened that within the respectable skin of a civilized person, with clear boundaries separating him from his fellows, there arose a chaotic, Dionysian being, craving total merger, the same being which at this very moment was delaying my friend, full of despair at the awareness that right there, under its nose, existed a mysterious, untouched, inaccessible world, in which people belonged to themselves alone. ***

Zeek‘s Hebrew translations are made possible by a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Please direct submissions and queries to editors[at]zeek.net

Excerpt from the novel Lily La Tigresse copyright © Alona Kimhi. Worldwide translation copyright © by The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. English translation © by The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Alona Kimhi immigrated to Israel from the Ukraine in 1972 at the age of six. She was an actress and model before becoming an author. Her first published work received the ACUM Prize, and later appeared in English as Lunar Eclipse [Toby Press, 2000]. Her novel Weeping Susannah received the Bernstein Prize in 1999, and was published in English by The Harvill Press in 2001, the same year she won the Prime Minister’s Prize. Her novel Lily La Tigresse appeared in 2004 [Keter Publishing], and has since been translated into several languages.

Dalya Bilu immigrated to Israel from South Africa in the 1950s. She has translated some of Israel’s most well-known writers. For her work she has received the Israel Culture and Education Ministry Prize for Translation, and the Times Literary Supplement and Jewish Book Council Award for Translation. Bilu’s translation of Judith Katzir’s Dearest Anne was recently published by the Feminist Press [2008].

***

All images by artist Jaime Permuth