“The Retrospective” by A.B. Yehoshua
Micah Reader in January 2016 by Brenda Levenson
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Temple Micah.
A.B. Yehoshua’s novels tend to be complex and thus difficult to read. Published in 2011, The Retrospective is no exception. And yet when one of our readers declared that she “liked the book and appreciated its complexity,” she expressed the feelings that several of us shared, while many disliked it for the same reason.
Second only to Rome and Jerusalem, the city of Santiago de Compostella has been a place of pilgrimage for Catholics since the 10th century. In The Retrospective the Spanish city serves as a metaphor for what Yair Moses will discover over the few days of the retrospective of his films to which he has been invited.
Moses, a well-known Israeli film director, is accompanied by Ruth, a beautiful actress who has been his muse and a “radiant screen presence,” as one of our readers called her. Long ago, she and Trigano, Moses’ scriptwriter, had carried on a passionate affair. When Moses seduced her away from Trigano, the friendship between the two men ended along with their partnership after a disagreement relating to a scene in one of the films on which they were working. Trigano does not travel to Santiago, but after a short while his presence hovers over every aspect of the event as Moses discovers the role he played in the invitation sent to him, and perhaps also in the choice of the painting than hangs in his hotel room.
On loan from a museum, the painting is the work of the 17th century Italian artist Caravaggio, known for his dramatic use of light and shade. Titled “Caritas Romana” (Roman Charity), it depicts an act of empathy and “charity” by a young woman towards her father. Several other painters of the period chose to represent the same subject, sometimes adding to it a touch of eroticism. Trigano was anxious to include an episode copied after Caravaggio’s painting in one of the films on which he and Moses collaborated. Moses eliminated the scene, and Trigano never forgave him. As Moses views the retrospective of his work in Santiago, the exercise becomes a pilgrimage through his life, bringing him back to his long ago affair with Ruth, his disagreement with and estrangement from Trigano, along with a sudden understanding of why Trigano had wanted that particular scene.
Much of the book is about “objective reality” noted one of our readers, as it “plays with boundaries between what is real and what is not.” We are told that Moses, the director, is influenced by Fellini and Luis Buñel, two of cinema’s masters of the genre. One person pointed to the fact that Trigano, who had been a student of Moses as well as his scriptwriter, is the one who controls the current situation in Santiago with Machiavellian precision, down to the dubbing of the films in Spanish, a language that Moses does not know. Our group questioned whether the dialogue in a foreign tongue was a faithful interpretation of the meaning in Hebrew, or is Trigano playing another trick on his former mentor? Upon his return to Israel, anxious to make amends to Trigano, Moses visits him. But as one reader commented, while Moses has changed, charging ahead with his life, Trigano is stuck in the past and remains bitter and unforgiving.
The novel raised many questions among our readers. What does the mention of Don Quixote have to do with the story? What about the “atonement” that Trigano requires from Moses? It appeared bizarre until one of our readers clarified the meaning of atoning in Judaism. The Retrospective led to a most interesting discussion. As a pilgrimage through one’s life, the book is about memory, what we remember and how we remember it. It is also about the power of art, in this case a painting that can evoke remembrances of things past, and awaken feelings long buried.