Givatayim, Israel –‘The Retrospective” is a work of art inspired by another work of art, a novel with roots in a painting.
A few years ago, A. B. Yehoshua and his wife were visiting Santiago de Compostelo, Spain, and he saw a graying reproduction of a disturbing painting, with a prisoner feeding at the breast of young woman. He took a photo of the painting, something he rarely does, and then showed it to an expert. The painting is “Caritas Romana” or “Roman Charity,” based on an ancient Roman legend of Cimon, imprisoned and sentenced to die by starvation, and his daughter Pero. That scene has been portrayed in paintings, sculpture and drawings over the centuries, including works by Caravaggio, Rubens and Vermeer.
“I took it as the driving element of the novel,” the distinguished Israeli novelist says in a recent interview near his home in Givatayim, just outside of Tel Aviv. In the novel, an aging Israeli film director who is visiting Santiago similarly asks an expert about the painting, but that’s one of the few elements of this novel that Yehoshua will admit is drawn from his life.
“My readers are eager to see some element of autobiography. If I take something from my life, I cut it into very small pieces,” he says, chopping up an imaginary block with his hand. He adds, “I am trying to understand myself through the writing.”
“The Retrospective” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), beautifully translated into English by Stuart Schoffman, was published in Hebrew as “Hesed Sefaradi.” A translator’s note explains that chesed “eludes precise translation” and connotes kindness, compassion and charity, and that Sefaradi refers both to Jews whose ancestors were expelled from Spain and to Jews from Arabic-speaking countries. Schoffman’s aside that “the double meaning helps the reader get the picture” hints at the many levels of meaning the reader is about to encounter in the richly plotted story.
Last year, Yehoshua, whose previous works include “The Lover,” “A Late Divorce,” “Mr. Mani” and “A Journey to the End of the Millennium,” was awarded the prestigious French “Prix Medicis” for the new novel. The Hebrew edition features the painting on the cover, although the American version does not.
A talk with the 76-year-old author about the novel becomes a wide-ranging conversation about art and Judaism, the nature of creativity, Israeli policies and politics, God, religion and peacemaking, all springing from the storyline. He’s open and generous and articulate.
Before meeting Yehoshua, I ask cab drivers, cousins, hotel clerks and other Hebrew speakers about him, and many have read him, some back in their school days. He’s part of the modern Hebrew canon, and is recognized by the café waiters, who seem pleased by his presence, although they make no fuss.
The Aleph (A) in his pen name is for Avraham, Bet (B) is for Buli, a nickname given to him by childhood friends. The winner of the Israel Prize, he grew up in Jerusalem, the son of a fifth-generation Jerusalem family originally from Salonika on his father’s side, and a Moroccan-born mother. His grandfather was a rabbi, and the family’s lifestyle was traditional. He served in the Israeli Army, studied literature and philosophy at Hebrew University and, until recently, taught at the University of Haifa. His books have been widely translated and published in more than 25 countries, with many adapted to film, theater and opera.
When asked about the emotional complexity that marks the characters in his novels, he says, “In this I got good training. I am married to a psychoanalyst — I have to understand that the world is not simple. You see the surface and have to dig again and again.”
In “Retrospective,” film director Yair Moses travels to Santiago, a pilgrimage city with grand plazas and cathedrals, at the invitation of the city’s Archive of Cinematic Arts, for a major retrospective of his early films. He later learns that the film institute is connected to the Catholic Church, and that its director is an ordained priest. His companion is Ruth, his longtime leading actress, who is also aging, and they are fine-tuned to each others’ needs. Moses is still full of ideas for new films; he sees images and tries to commit them to memory to recreate in the future.
Watching his old and ambitious avant-garde films, he doesn’t always remember the scenes. But they spark memories of earlier days and his late cinematographer Toledano and now-estranged screenwriter Trigano, and the surreal, absurdist visions they tried to express. The retrospective is full of surprises.
In their hotel room, he is struck by a painting and later finds out that it is “Roman Charity.” The painting reminds him of the dispute that ended his collaboration with his longtime screenwriter, who worked on these early films and had been Ruth’s lover. Returning to Israel, Moses seeks him out, with hopes of reconciliation and a different kind of collaboration. The screenwriter presents him a challenge, and the conclusion of the novel is daring, with a mix of Cervantes and “Don Quixote,” considered the first modern novel.
“For me, coming to ‘Don Quixote,’ this is my retrospective — going back to sources of the imagination,” Yehoshua says.
The descriptions of the films suggest some of Yehoshua’s earlier short stories, and he admits that two of them are directly based on “The Yatir Evening Express” and “The Last Commander,” while the others are imagined. If the novel might seem like a retrospective of Yehoshua’s own career and the shifts he has made, he’d rather talk about his own interest in the creative process.
He’s a writer who takes seriously the professions of his heroes, whether they are engineers, lawyers or garage owners. This is the first time he’s written about an artist. Here, he creates relationships between the director, cinematographer and screenwriter that show the dynamics between wild imagination, ideas and aesthetics. As a novelist, he performs all of these functions, directing, creating images and developing the storyline.
In fact, the dispute between the Ashkenazi director and Sephardi screenwriter is about art — the screenwriter sees a failure of imagination in the director. For the screenwriter, there are no boundaries in art, and no humiliation; art and meaning, even beauty, can be drawn even from the most terrible of sources. Theirs is really a conflict between artistic integrity and moral commitment, one of the book’s underlying themes.
Yehoshua believes that art has no borders. But, he says that creating art is “not for the sake of breaking borders, but to reach new understandings of life.”
The rift between the two men also reflects Israel’s societal break, between Jews of European background and those from Sephardic, or Oriental backgrounds, between religious and secular.
“My feeling is that without cooperation between these two elements, the identity of Israel is in trouble. We need not just an attempt at cooperation, but,” he says, weaving his fingers together in the air, “a mutual feeling of each other.
“I am a believer in reconciliation with the Arabs, with factions in society; I am eager to contribute to reconciliation,” says Yehoshua, who is known for his alignment with Israel’s left. “I believe in the concept of man’s ability to change.” He speaks of Zionism as a movement of optimism, based in the tenet that the future can be different from the past.
The conversation shifts to the recent elections and peacemaking with the Palestinians, which is highest on his national priorities. “I am optimistic,” he says, and looks forward to President Obama’s planned visit later this month. Some on the left, he says, look toward Obama as messiah, but he warns that Obama can’t do the job for the Israelis.
“In Israel, you have to be educated in democracy — it’s in the genes of Americans. You’re born from democracy. You know, ‘No taxation without representation.’” Frowning, he mentions the possibility of an apartheid state, without democracy, if all citizens are not treated equally. He chides American Jews to become more involved with the peace process.
“I am not a navi [prophet] and I am not a ben-navi [the son of a prophet],” Yehoshua says softly, before resuming his high-energy exchange.
He’s the author of a play recently produced at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater, “Can We Walk Together,” about David Ben-Gurion and Zev Jabotinsky and a series of meetings they held in London about their political differences in the 1930s. Yehoshua enjoys sharing the detail that Ben-Gurion once cooked an omelet for Jabotinsky. In 1959, while a student, Yehoshua met with Ben-Gurion — his father’s friend Yitzhak Navon was then Ben Gurion’s political secretary — when he was hired to do research for the prime minister about the Talmudic redactor, Rav Ashi.
While Yehoshua is secular, he’s very interested in questions of religion. He mentions the Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon, who for his generation of novelists is like Tolstoy: the rare example of a writer able to bring art and religion together. While Yehoshua invented the film institute in Santiago that was affiliated with the Catholic Church, he admires the ways in which the Catholic Church embraces art in many forms, whether painting, sculpture, music or literature.“I am still waiting for the encounter between Judaism and art.”
A.B. Yehoshua will speak about “The Retrospective” at the 92nd Street Y on Thursday, March 14 at 8 p.m., in conversation with Dan Miron. Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street. Tickets from $24.; He will also speak on Friday, March 15, following Shabbat services at 6:30 p.m., at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 7 W. 83rd St. Free for members and $25 for non-members (including dinner). Payment must be received by March 14. For information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, (646) 454-3029.