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, refused to film Trigano’s original ending:
Trigano bore the offense with a quiet hatred that undermined any chance of continued collaboration. True, creative differences had flared up between them before, arguments over characters and relationships, the content and style of dialogue, camera angles that had been spelled out in the screenplay. But when the actress rebelled in the last scene of the seventh film — a scene that for the writer was the very point of the film — and the director not only made no effort to get her back in front of the camera but supported her action, Trigano quickly tore their collaboration to shreds.
In spite of his attempts to shake off the connection between the image, the man, and the incident, Caritas romana becomes a specter which tracks Moses and envelopes the festival. He requests that an expert from the local art institute come to his hotel to explain the origins of the reproduction, at which point Moses is shocked to discover the suckling prisoner is in fact the young girl’s father. Further, he is at once fascinated and appalled by the scene’s eroticism, its Oedipal character, as well as its shameful or restrained aspects — the way in which some artists depict Pero turning away from Cimon as he clings to her, or render him with bound hands, thus limiting further possibilities.
Moses’s unsettled disposition is a constant throughout Yehoshua’s novel. The retrospective forces him to revisit his earlier movies, the period of his career when, operating in tandem with Trigano, he was at his most productive, most avant-garde, most experimental. While also made to confront his mistakes, and viewing with a degree of embarrassment the naïveté of his initial movies — “Did we actually believe that our wars would someday be over?” he wonders — Moses recognizes the fantastical, imaginative quality of those films versus the realism of his later work.
And it is the mistakes, and the bitter breakup of the partnership, that continue to disconcert him. A screening of The Refusal concludes the retrospective, the final scene of which, in place of the charity Trigano wrote, merely has the mother, played by Ruth, walk steadily along the beach and vanish into the distance. “The audience in the dark are meant to believe that she is secure in her newly acquired freedom,” Moses notes as narrator, but as he accepts his prize, he is asked why his ending was so “vague and empty of meaning.” “The end,” he replies, “is always a compromise between what was and what will never be.”
Although he does not initially acknowledge it, the retrospective foments within Moses a desire for reconciliation. Before he departs Santiago de Compostela, he takes to the local church and demands that a monk listen to his confession, all the while stating that, “I don’t need absolution, nor do I believe in absolution that does not follow an act of atonement — which no one else can perform in my place.” He goes on to say, “My confession is free of sin,” he states, “and therefore, absolution is unnecessary.”
He protests too much. When Moses returns to Israel, he places himself on a road to expiation that concludes with him tracking down Trigano, heading out into the desert to a moshav near the border with Gaza in order to seek forgiveness, and asking his old screenwriter to agree to speak once more with Ruth — Trigano’s former lover — to persuade her to seek medical attention for an unspecified blood condition. “I came to you tonight as a penitent,” Moses pleads, to which Trigano replies, “A shallow word if not accompanied by an act of atonement.” The atonement Trigano demands is a reconstruction of the lost scene, with Moses as the old man on his knees, the suckling prisoner.
Here, the comparison with Steinbeck is worthwhile. The act of Caritas romana, while oft-replicated, remains a powerful image. For the man in particular, this is the ultimate act of degradation, of humiliation. It represents a return to the pathetic helplessness of infancy, to the stage of total dependence upon another for life, for nourishment. In other words, Cimon, in the original story, is at his lowest ebb at the point of accepting such charity from his gracious daughter, and so it must be for those reconstructing the scene in the novelistic form.
In The Grapes of Wrath, when Rose of Sharon offers herself to the skeletal, frail elder wasting away in the barn, the Great Depression is in full swing, and California is awash with families like the Joads who have been driven from the Dustbowl to the land of oranges and wine in search of work. Having arrived to discover that the employment situation is no better on the fertile coast, many are driven into beggary and starvation — Rose of Sharon, malnourished herself, gives birth to a stillborn pages before the Joad family takes shelter in the barn. Thus, while the final scene is disturbing in its way, it feels of a piece, in keeping with the feeling of utter desperation that pervades the novel.
But for Yehoshua’s Moses, it is never made evident why he would feel the need to finally film Trigano’s scene, with he as the famished old man, cheapening and disgracing himself in the process. Not only is there no good reason for demanding any deed to accompany the words of atonement in the first instance, but there is no justification for the reenactment of Caritas romana as the inevitable conclusion to Moses’s quest for a perfect peace. This problem is only compounded by the lengths he has to go to in order to make it happen: another departure to Santiago de Compostela with the son of his former cinematographer, where he ropes in the local monk, his confessor, to scour the city in search of a lady suitable for the scene.
Indeed, it takes three attempts and most of his prize money to get the final shot, at which point Moses has a bizarre awakening:
The milk is warm — strong sweetish mother’s milk with a mysterious taste, a hint perhaps of a country dish consumed by the woman. Well, then, this is the fantasy. The inspiration I craved has returned, he muses with joy, I am drinking it straight into the chambers of my heart, against the reality that strangles us. My heart is intact, my daughter checked it not long ago. If so, this is my true retrospective, a retrospective meant from the start only for me.
The whole episode places too great a demand upon the reader’s trust, and comes as an unwelcome and jarring conclusion to Yehoshua’s otherwise resolutely realistic, meditative, melancholic novel. It is a novel, moreover, which is also flawed, for while the writer’s craft and workmanship is visible upon the page, the conceit of The Retrospective is unsatisfactory mainly because of the purpose it serves for Yehoshua. As Avraham Balaban explained in Ha’aretz:
The gist of the novel is the retrospective that Yehoshua is carrying out vis-a-vis his own career. The filmmaker’s retrospective features only his early movies, and these return the reader to Yehoshua’s first stories. Some of the films pertain directly to stories in the author’s first collection, “The Death of the Old Man” (1963); other films have an indirect relation to surrealist themes in Yehoshua’s early work. Further on in the novel, however, in sections that take place in Israel, the narrative conveys hints of Yehoshua’s later works: Trigano’s special-needs child reminds readers of the novella “The Continuing Silence of a Poet” (included in “Facing the Forests,” 1967); Ruth’s disappearance in Spain bears a clear resemblance to Nina’s vanishing in the novel “Five Seasons” (1987); and the list goes on. In addition, the themes of morality and guilt run through the novel, so as to ensure that the author’s literary essays, collected in “The Terrible Power of a Minor Guilt” (1998), won’t be forgotten either.
Such allusions are and will be of a good deal of interest to scholars of Yehoshua’s oeuvre and Israeli literature more widely, and while reflections on the evolution of the writer might be fascinating for the gentleman wielding the pen, it is difficult to see, given the aforementioned narrative defect, why The Retrospective should demand too much of anyone else’s time. What insights there are to be drawn from Yehoshua’s Spanish charity — on religion, art, and mortality — are not in themselves adequate recompense for his novel’s conceptual failings.