My father enjoyed telling people he’d never read a book in his life, as if this were a detail you might remember about him, as if it were some great stroke of luck, like never being issued with a speeding ticket. I don’t know what other people made of this fact but from my perspective, when I was a teenager, his status as a non-reader was a trait of grave consequence and a disappointment bordering on insult, because I wanted to be a novelist and supposed the task of writing and publishing a book was near-impossible without a pedigree or guide or miraculous help. For some reason I believed I might stand a better chance if my father read novels and could talk to me about Beckett or Tsiolkas.
He flicked through newspapers; he closely read the racing guide. Instead of books he preferred the medium of narrative speech, of stories told and refined at the table: tales about old cafes and gambling dens and superstitions and reversals of fortune and acts of generosity and sacrifice.
When I was 17, my father surprised me one day when he agreed to my suggestion that we read something together, something short — a play. Certainly he’d noticed my feelings of resentment, my childish impression that he could do nothing more to help me. For our one and only book club, I chose Oedipus Rex. I’m sorry to say at the time I thought the gesture was all subtle condemnation; I thought it might be clever to select a play in which a young man kills his father.
My father went to his grave without reading another book. This I know because I asked him during the final week of his life. The question came as a diversion from the other subjects we discussed at his death bed, and my curiosity was not whole: by that time it no longer mattered to me whether the people I loved were readers.
It’s likely he knew the outline of the Oedipus myth: a man kills a stranger in a fight — in what we’d call road rage — on his way to the city of Thebes. When he arrives at the city, he finds the population at the mercy of the Sphinx, a monster who challenges Oedipus to solve a riddle. The riddle is answered and the monster flees. Oedipus becomes the king of Thebes and rules for many years until the day he discovers that the man he killed on the road was his birth father, and the woman he married is his mother.
Within the space of an afternoon, my father read Oedipus and came to my room, book in hand, where he leaned on the door and we discussed the play. When he referred to certain passages he held the book up to his open face, his mouth compressed, the story digested entirely. About Oedipus, my father described him as admirable, intelligent, innocent in some ways. Was he a hero? Oh, for sure. When things fell to bits, he was prepared to bear responsibility, to suffer and change his life.
My father asked: what happened to the Sphinx? According to the myth I knew, the defeated monster, her riddle solved, left the city and threw herself from a cliff. Yes but, said my father, the Sphinx possessed the wings of a bird, and who’s to say she, before crashing to the ground, didn’t save herself and fly off to some other place? Hidden in Sophocles’s tragedy —the ur-tragedy — he identified an escape, a second chance. There could be another way; there was something I hadn’t seen.
Later I came to understand the stories he told as constituting my inheritance. And his optimism helped him persevere through the six years he suffered with stage-four pancreatic cancer, when every scan and pathology report felt like either an escape from fast-approaching death, or a final notice of the end.
Today I see the disgraced Oedipus, driven into exile, accompanied by his two daughters, as he walks the road to Athens, followed by a speck in the sky: the magnificent Sphinx.
Andrew Pippos’s debut novel Lucky’s, was published in 2020. Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, it was winner of the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2021.
This story appears in Openbook autumn 2022.