The Retrospective: A Novel
In The Retrospective (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp. $26), adeptly translated by Stuart Schoffman, Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua shows himself to have serious metaphysical and theological concerns, on the one hand, and to have an almost Rabelaisian zest for artistic playfulness, on the other.
The novel tells the story of a film retrospective in Santiago de Compostela—a Spanish city known more for its Catholic pilgrimages than for its film culture—of the early work of Israeli director Yair Moses. The event has been surreptitiously arranged by his former screenwriter and current bitter enemy, Shaul Trigano. Years ago, Trigano had put together a group of North African Jewish musketeers to make surrealist films. Somehow, this far-fetched scenario works out. Moses later abandoned surrealism for “something more heartfelt and plausible” and “scenes that convey simple compassion, not intellectual provocation.”
After several early collaborative films, Trigano breaks off his relationship with Moses as well as with his leading actress, Ruth. Ruth has refused to act a scene written by Trigano that she found absurd and Moses cut it from the screenplay.
The scene in question has to do with Caritas Romana, “Roman Charity,” an old folk tale “retold” in dozens of works of art of a dutiful daughter who breastfeeds her father dying of hunger in a prison cell. It turns out that Trigano, who has no classical education and is therefore unaware of the existence of these paintings, has uncannily reimagined the story.
In an artistic tour de force, Yehoshua treats us to a dazzling recounting of the films presented. Breaking the artistic wall, he comments on what had gone on in the wings during the making of the films in Israel as well as on what happens in the audience at the screening in Spain.
Whether Yehoshua sees Moses and Trigano as two parts of his artistic self is up for interpretation.The novel is stuffed with a series of thematic motifs that Yehoshua has humorously inserted for his own pleasure. For example, we are constantly reminded of the director’s desire, seemingly for the fun of it, to enter into a Catholic confessional. This last motif leads to an unexpected act of artistic contrition on which the second half of the novel is based.
The novel’s playful conclusion places it in the postmodern genre of self-reflective metafiction. You will have to read this intriguing work to the end to see if you can take pleasure in Yehoshua’s look at his own artistic legacy.