Fathers and Sons and Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son
c. 1669
Oil on canvas, 262 x 206 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

This is a very long but moving passage from The Father’s Tale by Michael O’Brien. I quite liked it and think it gives a good representation of what I liked in the book. To set the scene, Alex Graham has pursued his son from Great Britain to Scandinavia to Russia, trying to rescue him from the cult that has him in its clutches. He’s not sure whether his son is with them willingly or not. Therefore, sons and fathers are much on his mind at present. The review will come soon, but for now, enjoy this.

(I’m not using the standard method of indicating a quote both because of the sheer length and also because that automatically puts it into italics which I think is too hard to read for such a long piece.)

When his head cleared a little, he looked up. Before him was Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son.

At first glance, the painting seemed to be immense, because he was standing only a few feet from it, and he was forced to crane his neck as he looked up from the battered feet of the son, through the tender hands that embraced him, to the face of the father.

Alex stepped back a few paces.

Red, umber, and sepia bathed the image in warmth. The son knelt before the father with his head on the old man’s chest, as if seeking refuge in the folds of his garments. The father bent over him, both hands on his son’s back, the fingers splayed slightly, palm to the flesh that had come from him, that had fled from him, and that was now returning to him. The hands protected and comforted. The tilt of the aged head and the half-lidded eyes conveyed infinite compassion, a wisdom that was in no way naive about the sins of the son but that submerged all wrongs in mercy. The dignity of the father embraced the degraded son in a communion that would restore him to his lost dignity.

To the right, robed in a different kind of dignity—that of the righteous, the good, the responsible—was the elder brother, who regarded the scene dubiously, and with resentment. His upright body was unbending, his hands clasped tightly around the staff of his authority.

Alex could hear the words of protest muttered by the elder son: “This son of yours…”

And the words of the father’s answer: “This brother of yours…”

Was lost and is found.

Alex closed his eyes for a few moments. When he opened them again, he noticed that the youth who had been going slowly from picture to picture at the far ends of the gallery now stood a pace to his left. Oblivious to Alex’s presence, he gazed solemnly at the image, his arms hanging by his sides.

Alex regretted the interruption but stepped aside to allow the other a central place before the painting. He expected the interloper to move on quickly, but minutes passed. How long they remained like this was impossible. to tell. The boy’s stillness and rapt attention to the painting were inexplicable. He was in his late teens or early twenties, and Alex wondered how one so young would be capable of such concentration, if concentration it was Why was he not at school? Why was he not tinkering in the innards of a car engine, or pounding around an athletic field?

His face in no way displayed typical Slavic features. It was quintessentially primitive, the forehead slanted, brow ridges heavy, eyes small and inexpressive, cheeks hollow. His thin lips were parted slightly, and his chin was unevenly shaved. Brown hair was cropped close to the skull. His hands were large and his fingernails dirty. His blunt and muscular body was a peasant’s torso with slightly bowed legs hinting at malnutrition. He wore a dingy green coat full of holes, and baggy workman’s pants with cuffs suspended inches above wet, down-at-heel shoes.

Heaving a sigh as old and as freighted as humanity, the youth caught himself, perhaps becoming fully aware that there was another person beside him. He shot a swift glance at Alex and shifted his body away. His face, which had been open and defenseless while absorbed in the painting, now closed in on itself, guarded and anonymous.

Alex too retreated into himself, wishing the other would depart.

Eventually the youth turned a few degrees in Alex’s direction and murmured, “Zto horosho.” It is good.

“Yes,” Alex replied in the same tone, “it is good.”

Now it was possible to attempt more.

“The father…” said the youth.

“Yes, and the son…” Alex replied.

“And…you see…the hands…”

Each sentence was left unfinished with spaces of many seconds between the responses. It was neither interruption nor inarticulation; it seemed to Alex that it was a necessary reduction, so that speech would not ruin what was now flowing back and forth between them.

“The boy…he came home,” said the youth.

“And the father ran out to meet him,” Alex replied.

A sudden tension crossed the youth’s face. “If the father had not, what then?”

“But the son trusted.”

“He risked…”

“The father also risks.”

The youth turned to face Alex. He crossed his arms as if holding himself, as if he were cold.

“I…my…” He looked down at the floor, his eyes haunted.

For a moment or two, Alex could find nothing to say, and when he spoke he did not know where the thought had come from:

“The son should return to the father,” he said.

“But what if the father does not want the son?” replied the youth.

“If he does not, then the son must remember.” Alex pointed at the old man in the image. “Remember this face. It is a window. Through it you see the hidden face.”

“The hidden face?”

“Yes. He is looking at you.”

The youth glanced up at the painting again. Then back at Alex.

“How…this speaking…you and me speaking?”

“I seek…”

“You seek your son?”

“Yes. He is lost.”

“I think maybe you will find him. A father such as you will find him.”

“Will he want me?”

“I do not know. But I think it will be so.”

“And your father?”

Once again a spasm of pain crossed the boy’s face. He did not answer.

“Have you lost him?” Alex asked.

“I have run from him.”

“You must return to him.”

“Will he want me?”

“I hope it will be so. He should want a son such as you.”

“But…”

“It may be he does not yet know you.”

“Who are you?” the youth asked.

“You know me.”

“Do I know you, sir?”

“Yes. And I know you.”

Strangely, this did not disturb the other, though he spent a minute pondering it.

“Surely we have met before?”

“No.”

“But tell me, who are you?”

“I am you.”

the boy uncrossed his arms. He opened his mouth but said nothing.

“As you will be, in time,” Alex said.

“I…” The eyes blinked rapidly, withholding tears.

“The child is father of the man,” Alex said, looking up at the father in the painting. “Remember his face, for he too is your father. Remember my face also, and the words we have spoken to each other.”

The boy looked into the man’s eyes and nodded. Unable to speak, he walked from the room.

Alex left the Hermitage soon after, overcome by this inexplicable exchange. It was by now late afternoon and growing cold. The rush hour traffic had begun in earnest along Nevsky, but despite the roar he decided to walk the entire length of it to the Moskva. It took more than an hour, but it seemed to him that time had continued to alter its nature. he looked into many hundreds of faces on the way, and in all of them he saw what he had seen in the face of the peasant youth.

All men are my son, and all women are my daughter.

He arrived at his hotel room after six o’clock. There no messages. He lay down on the bed and covered his eyes with a hand.

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