THE STORY OF PERO, who, in an act of mercy and kindness, nursed her starving father, Cimon, as she might nurse a child while he lay dying in a prison cell, has fascinated artists and writers for centuries. Her exemplary gesture of Caritas romana, or Roman charity, has been reproduced over and over, particularly captivating the painters of the 17th and 18th centuries who took to portraying Pero as either positively angelic in her compassion, or more as an aged, weary woman in the midst of a despairing act of desperate necessity.
John Steinbeck would use the Caritas romana motif in the conclusion to his epic dramatization of America’s Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath. Having taken refuge in a barn, the Joad family discovers two figures in the gloom, including an old man who is close to the end, famished, and unable to digest solid foods. Without the money to buy him soup or milk, Rose of Sharon takes it upon herself to aid the expiring man:
For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
So too does the image of “a bald man, his upper body naked, sitting or kneeling at the feet of a bare-breasted nymph” trouble the mind of Yair Moses, the aged auteur and protagonist in A. B. Yehoshua’s new novel, The Retrospective. Moses has traveled to Santiago de Compostela with his muse and sometime-object of his passions, Ruth, to attend a retrospective of his early cinematic works and receive an award. Hanging on the wall of his hotel room is a painting of Pero and Cimon.
Moses finds himself not only perturbed and fascinated by the image itself — by the “hungry and desperate” old man who has been “starved so badly that he is drawn to the merciful breasts of a young nursing woman” — but by the memories which resurface at its sight. “Is it conceivable that in the dawning light, he has uncovered a secret source that long ago sparked the imagination of his former screenwriter?” Moses proposes, as he is borne back to a hinge moment in his career, when his relationship with his student and screenwriter, Shaul Trigano, was severed.
The Refusal, what would transpire to be Moses and Trigano’s final movie, was due to have its own charitable ending. In the original script, having given her newborn baby up for adoption, the young woman played by Ruth would wander the streets in a state of anguish and, seeing an old beggar in the gutter, open up her coat and perform the required act of mercy. But on location and with the stage prepared, Ruth found herself unable to perform the scene, and Moses, empathizing with her plight and flight from the set, refuse...read more