arts & entertainment
lakinal On The Artist
As Israel celebrates its 65th birthday, here is a conversation
with one of the nation's most acclaimed writers, A.B. Yehoshua.
Special to the Jewish News
Creating art is
"not for the sake of
but to reach new
he 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 a young woman.
He took a photo of the painting, some-
thing he rarely does, and then showed it to
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 por-
trayed in paintings, sculpture and draw-
ings 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 direc-
tor 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 ele-
ment of autobiography. If I take some-
thing 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 pub-
lished 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
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
May 16 • 2013
— A.B. Yehoshua
on the cover, although the American ver-
sion does not.
A talk with the 76-year-old author about
the novel becomes a wide-ranging conver-
sation 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
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 cafe wait-
ers, 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 the Hebrew
University and, until recently, taught at the
University of Haifa. His books have been
(The observations of the character
widely translated and published in more
than 25 countries, with many adapted to
film, theater and opera.
When asked about the emotional com-
plexity that marks the characters in his
novels, he says, "In this I got good train-
ing. 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
His companion is Ruth, his longtime
leading actress, who is also aging, and
they are fine-tuned to each other's needs.
Moses is still full of ideas for new films; he
sees images and tries to commit them to
memory to re-create 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.
Yair Moses, an aging Israeli film director)
" In recent years I have witnessed a new phenomenon among filmgoers, especially
those considered intelligent and perceptive. I have a name for this phenomenon: the
Instant White-Out. People are closeted in cozy darkness; they turn off their mobile
phones and willingly give themselves, for 90 minutes or two hours, to a new film that
got a four-star rating in the newspaper. They follow the pictures and the plot, under-
stand what is spoken either in the original tongue or via dubbing or subtitles, enjoy
lush locations and clever scenes, and even if they find the story superficial or prepos-
terous, it is not enough to pry them from their seats and make them leave the theater
in the middle of the show.
"But something strange happens. After a short while, a week or two, sometimes
even less, the film is whitened out, erased, as if it never happened. They can't remem-
ber its name, or who the actors were, or the plot. The movie fades into the darkness
of the movie house, and what remains is at most a ticket stub left accidentally in one's
— from The Retrospective (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
by A. B. Yehoshua, translated from Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman
Yehoshua's richly plotted The
Retrospective hinges on ideas
about artistic integrity and moral