This is the incredible story of Orlov, an embittered elderly artist who sees his life as a failure. At the age of 75, he makes a living by painting dead people because, he says, they don’t see his work and don’t complain. “I’m a lousy painter, it is true,” he admits, but painting is what he likes to do. When Orlov is asked by Magda, a pretty and mysterious woman, to paint a portrait of her recently-deceased husband, he discovers a secret from his past in her opulent home. At this point, he opens up and tells Magda the astonishing story of his life. His father was a German Nazi who informed on his wife—Orlov’s mother—to the Gestapo, yet she continued to love him. After Orlov and his mother reached Israel she abandoned him, married an Arab man and became a Muslim; one of her sons by him eventually joined the Fatah.
Orlov, left alone, was baptized and raised in a monastery; when he grew up he became a painter and then married a woman who despised his work. She finally left him after their son Omri was born. Orlov only met his mother again after the 1967 Six Day War, when she returned to Judaism. But she found no peace and committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of her house.
Orlov’s son is all that he has left. “You had true grit,” Omri tells him. “You wanted to fail.” Now an old man, Orlov discovers that despite everything someone admired his art (and bought it anonymously years ago); he also realizes that he is loved and that he has a family. “I’m sad, but I’m alright,” he sums up. “I don’t envy anyone.”
In his humorous way, Kaniuk deals here with the value of life, the artist’s path, and Jewish destiny.