Instant Fellini

Tessa Hadley

In ‘Eternal Father’, the last story in Happy Families, three sisters meet for a candlelit reunion around their father’s coffin, in a sunken park in Mexico City, ‘a cool, shaded urban depression in the midst of countless avenues and mute skyscrapers’. The father died a rich man. We aren’t told how he made his money, although picking up themes from the other stories in the collection we can guess: real estate, construction, politics? (‘He made other people work and took advantage of them,’ his oldest daughter says.) The women gather where he was born, in a bare adobe garage with a sliding metal door, an improvised toilet on one side. He made it a condition in his will that in order to claim their inheritance his daughters must meet like this every year for ten years: this is the tenth. They don’t know what happens next, whether after this they will be free to claim their portion of what he left, or whether, as they suspect, their father will prolong his tyranny over them by exacting some further compliance. ‘The door clangs and sounds like prison bars.’

These women don’t strictly speaking need their inheritance, and they seem ambivalent about whether they even want it: all three have made independent lives for themselves, as a banker, a potter, a violinist. But even all these years after his death, they fear their father too much to disobey him. Or they fear themselves; the oldest, the banker, Augusta, is afraid that they have become addicted to their father’s tyranny, that they need it to sustain and explain their lives. Worse, she fears that they may have created the tyranny they now submit to: ‘He’d simply walked by naked. They were the ones who had dressed him. Because they themselves needed power but were afraid of exercising it. They preferred to give it to a poor passerby who was dumbfounded when the crown and ermine cape fell on him. They breathed a sigh of relief. They were rid of the burden.’

Should this self-accusation be read as a comprehensive explanation of the family dynamic and its damage? It lies in the narrative alongside quite different suggestions: there are hints, for instance, of an ugly sexual history between the man and his daughters. A gagging disgust at his male physicality surfaces in Augusta: ‘I have the impression that I smelled him. He smelled of dirt, of crusted shit, of sweaty armpits, of crotch, of –’ The youngest sister, Julia, her father’s favourite, puts her hand across Augusta’s mouth to stop whatever was going to come next. ‘That’s not true . . . His body smelled of Yardley cologne, his hair of Barry’s Tricopherous.’ None of the sisters seems to be married or to be in a new family of her own, although at the end of the story Julia drives off with a boy in a Mustang convertible (ominously, he whistles for her, not bothering to get out of the car).

Each sister plays out her role. The youngest is the sweetest, the spoilt one, blonde with blue eyes and clean hands, expressing her love for their father in conventional pieties: ‘It’s obvious you two didn’t know Papa. He’s a saint.’ Augusta, who thinks Julia’s innocence the ‘mask of a profound malice’, is poised to inherit his authority, however reluctantly. The middle sister, Genara, is solitary, dedicated to drawing forms out of the earth with her pottery: her fate will be evenings alone in front of the television, with a cold supper on a tray. Only at one or two moments do the sisters seem bound together in something like love by the past they share: ‘They separated, somewhat confused about their own attitudes, and embraced again as if a decisive warning – night falling, a period of time about to conclude, the end of the plot – obliged them to defend themselves, united, against their father’s terrorist wishes, whatever they might be.’ Mostly, they bore and resent one another, quarrelling over what they remember and what it means. No narrative of the family past is certain. A number of possible versions coexist in the women’s ideas of themselves, all have explanatory power, none of them is sufficient in itself.

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