The hero of A.B. Yehoshua's "Spanish Charity," Yair Moses, an elderly filmmaker, travels to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, to participate in a retrospective of his early movies. He travels with Ruth, an actress who appeared in most of his films; he is at ease, pleased with himself, even a bit arrogant, perhaps. In his hotel room, he sees a painting of an elderly man, his arms tied, nursing from the breast of a young woman.
The painting stuns him, and ignites a process that, beginning with the retrospective, slowly strips Moses of his self-satisfaction, until he is left exposed and vulnerable. During this metaphorical process, Moses seeks reconciliation with Shaul Trigano, his one-time scriptwriter, with whom he had a complete break several years earlier. Perhaps the filmmaker also wants to reconcile with himself. In an interview about the book, the author discusses the actual painting "Caritas Romana" (Roman Charity), and how it inspired his choices in this novel.
Q. How did you choose a painting of a daughter nursing her father, as depicted in the work "Caritas Romana" as your theme?
A. I saw a reproduction in a hotel, in Santiago de Compostela, and I took a photograph of it, and when I returned to Israel I discovered an entire world of art, painting and sculpture, connected to the ancient Roman story of "Roman Charity." That was one of the sparks that ignited the impulse to write this book. In the past, I wanted to write about creative powers, but to do so via a protagonist who was a filmmaker, not a writer.
Q. Why are your plots invariably set, at least in part, in places far from here, and involve your heroes traveling overseas?
A. The journeys outside of Israel are, in some of my novels, brief excursions that encourage introspection connected to the heroes' lives in Israel, and the problems they face in these lives. But the basis is always Israel itself. These are journeys that create a dynamic related to the framework we know from our lives here; the journeys serve as a trigger in the plot. They are a way of stirring the soul, in order to deal with issues that were there before [the trip overseas], and perhaps to discover new things.
Q. This new novel is a retrospective of your own creative work, more than a retrospective of the protagonist himself, yet you quote Valerius Maximus, the writer who first told the story of "Roman Charity," as an indication that painting is more powerful than prose. Is this move from literature to film, and the intensive dealing with fine arts, an expression of disappointment with the words to which you have dedicated your life?
A. No, definitely not. The words have their place, and I will never replace writing with anything else. I wanted to explore the fundamental elements that operate in any creative work, that involve aspects of fantasy and imagination. These aspects exist in film, painting, even in music. The screenwriter, film director, actor, photographer and even those responsible for set design - all such figures and roles are part of me when I write, and when I split them into separate imaginative [characters], I was able to make palpable the struggles faced by these artists, which are comparable to the internal struggles I myself, and any writer, face.
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Q. The hero, Yair Moses, manages in the narrative to renounce not only his creative assets, but his moral assets as well, and most of all, his self-esteem, which is eroded to nothingness, and the actress, who in my opinion symbolizes his muse, is apparently very ill. Do the choices made by the filmmaker move the protagonist closer to the author?
A. No, Moses is a filmmaker of average talent, and he has had some mild successes, and he will continue to make films of some sort in the future. He is forced to deal with the accusation that his early work was more avant-garde, more provocative; and the actress he takes with him, both in his professional work and his private life, is a character who appears in his first movie, and in all that follow.
At this stage in their relationship, he feels that her character is exhausted, and he has no new role to offer her, and so, as compensation, he invites her to the retrospective. Over the course of the novel, she is transformed from an actress upon whom the filmmaker and scriptwriter could foist an array of different characters, to a real-life woman, a beloved woman who could evolve from a companion-escort to a wife.
Q. She appears as a muse who once inspired him, but is now worn out. And Moses, the hero, is also an elderly protagonist. He had occasional relations with her in the past, but they are finished, and he now appears to be a very lonely character.
A. I don't think that his solitude is absolute. He has connections with others, and his insistence that the actress undergo an important blood test implies his intent to pursue a more significant and deeper relationship with her. Sometimes an author is asked whether he is prepared to take up the challenges he thrusts upon his heroes, and the answer, at least with regard to Moses, is that the key to vanquishing solitude lies in the author's ability to serve as a character within a creative work of art. Taking up such a role is his only means of understanding the costs of the fantasies he creates in his work, as an artist.
When Trigano requires Moses to appear as a character in a scene omitted from one of his early films - an omission that caused the rift between the filmmaker and the screenwriter - he not only wants to take vengeance upon Moses, he also wants to educate him. And this isn't simply vengeance wrought with the aim of causing pain. The idea is to make the sinner experience the very situation that precipitated the conflict between the two, and repair what went wrong - Trigano is prepared to renew their collaboration only if Moses pays his pound of flesh. When Moses complains that Trigano is trying to humiliate and ridicule him, the screenwriter replies that there is never disgrace and humiliation in art, that art turns the contemptible into something beautiful, and the loathed into something meaningful.
Q. The novel alludes to works of art that you haven't actually written. Are you going to write them in the future, or are they ideas you started to develop, but abandoned at a certain stage?
A. Six old movies appear in the retrospective, but only two of them are based on early stories of mine, "The Yatir Evening Express" and "The Last Commander." I became acquainted with Kafka's story "In Our Synagogue" via Dan Miron's translation and commentary in Haaretz [Hebrew Edition], and I had the idea of somehow turning Kafka into a film. Adapting two of my early stories into films involved some changes and additions, and that gave me an opportunity to examine early creative processes shared by an entire generation of writers after World War II.
In view of the chaos left by the war, it was impossible to write long, detailed novels that describe the histories of families or peoples; Beckett, Camus and others emerged out of that unrest. Also, Kafka's works, written between the world wars, became an important part of 20th-century literature after the catastrophe. I wanted to reflect upon this, in light of the social and psychological realism that I myself, and others, developed during advanced stages of our careers, and to respond to all those who ask me about stories I wrote when I was young.
Q. Does the retrospective hint that the time has come for a departure?
A. Not at all. I don't view this as a parting novel. I am convinced that when Trigano receives the photo, he will connect Moses to the fantasies that burn within him, and they will work together on more collaborative films.
Alit Karp is a writer, editor and translator.