A.B. Yehoshua Takes on the Iconography of Guilt and Atonement

Israeli filmmaker Yair Moses, the central figure in A.B. Yehoshua’s newly translated latest novel, arrives in Spain to receive an honor and a prize at the end of a long, successful career, and finds himself having to engage in some unexpected self-reflection

The Retrospective,by A.B. Yehoshua (translated from the Hebrew, “Hesed Sfaradi,” by Stuart Schoffman). Halban Publishers, 382 pages, £10 (U.K.); Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (U.S.)

“I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect,” Sophocles once wrote. Not that this apprehension ever deterred the great and the good throughout history from succumbing to the indulgence of self-reflection. No matter how well-intentioned the attempt, parsing the true meaning of one’s life will make unreasonable demands upon the person. At one extreme, there’s the understandable temptation to selectively excise the inconvenient detail that detracts from a glorious ideal (think politicians and their self-absorbed pursuit of legacy, for example); at the other, engaging the truth with curiosity and candor is a dangerous game, causing one to run the risk of undercutting the certainties that shape one’s sense of self. There is middle ground, but like many accommodations, this leans toward the inconclusive.

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“The end is always a compromise between what was and what will never be.” Yair Moses, the main character of “The Retrospective,” A.B. Yehoshua’s newly translated 10th novel, is well placed to make this observation. A celebrated Israeli film director, he has been invited to the Spanish pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela, to participate in a retrospective of his films and to receive a prize for his life’s work. The award flatters, but only slightly; he contemplates suppressing publicity to avoid the tiresome demands of the tax man back home on the modest cash award he is to receive. But he attends all the same, accompanied by Ruth, his cinematic muse and the Israeli actress who has featured in all his films. The precise status of their relationship is unclear, to their hosts and perhaps even to themselves: “At some retrospectives, two rooms are reserved for the director and the actress, because Internet biographies are vague concerning the true nature of their relationship.” Here though, they share a room. His mind, however, turns more toward the professional aspect of their relationship as they arrive in a city steeped in history. “In essence, she is not a partner but a companion, more precisely a character who reappears in his films because he feels obligated to look after her.”

Perhaps no more. Looking ahead, Moses wonders how to break the news that he will not be casting Ruth in his next film, a project as yet undefined except by her absence.

But an unexpected surprise awaits the Israelis at their hotel. On the wall of their room is a painting of an elderly man, bound and blindfolded, suckling at the breast of a young woman. The imagery is ambiguous, and the painting’s title, “Caritas Romana” (literally “Roman Charity”), does little to explain the context of the tableau.

The image in the painting, however, has profound personal significance for Moses: It mirrors the aborted final scene of the last film he made with his early filmmaking collaborator and screenwriter, Shaul Trigano. Their professional relationship, formed when Moses was a young history teacher and Trigano his prodigiously talented pupil, was forged from a shared faith in the higher ideals of artistic integrity and of preferring honesty over baser considerations. Their collaboration ran to several films, dimly remembered but critically satisfying.

The provocative denouement to their last film had been written with Ruth at the time Trigano’s lover in mind. But at the last moment she demurs from the script’s demands, to suckle an anonymous beggar in the street just after giving her child up for adoption. There was a confrontation, and Moses took her side, rewriting the script and breaking his artistic pact with Trigano to accommodate her. Cut to the quick, the screenwriter severed his ties with the two; Moses, discovering a new creative freedom, went on to establish a commercially and critically productive career over 30 odd years. Trigano, on the other hand, lapsed into anonymity. The break between the two served the director well, one might surmise. Perhaps.

Titles changed, dialogue dubbed

It’s wishful thinking to assume that once evoked, the memories from Moses’ past will dissipate at will. At first Moses scarcely recognizes the films that have been selected for the retrospective. True, the titles have been changed and the dialogue dubbed, but the disconnect runs deeper. The curation focuses on his early period, on the films that he made with Trigano. A shift in emphasis in his films, earmarked by his break with his collaborator, is duly noted even if the audience does not know the cause. “It seems to us,” Juan De Viola, the priest who is hosting the retrospective, remarks, “that you have turned your back on the surrealistic and symbolic style of your early films, and have become addicted to extreme realism that is almost naturalistic. The question is simple: why?”

Why indeed? As a writer, Yehoshua allows his narratives to emerge through the intricacies of character development and the interplay between characters rather than through grand overarching themes. Moses, the central focus of “The Retrospective,” does something similar, with his persona defined through his engagement with the immediacy of lived experience. It’s not quite the extreme realism of his films, but not far removed. It is not that he is unreflective; if anything, he arguably ruminates on everyday occurrences more than necessary. But he parses life through the certainty of his perspective, the unimpeachable confidence of his knowledge. The abstraction of symbolic interpretation has no appeal for him.

But between the painting on the wall and the retrospective on the screen, through the eerie sensation of watching half-remembered films in a language he doesn’t understand, Moses is prodded from the lingering emotional complacency fed by his success. There is unfinished business with Trigano, a settling of accounts. Almost without realizing it, he finds himself drawn to his murky past.

No one would accuse Yehoshua of suffering from an economy of words, and this lack of concision sometimes imposes a digressive weight on his work. But “The Retrospective” is crafted, on the whole, with an engaging restraint, an acute portrait of Moses’ crisis of confidence, evoked through inference and suggestion. Casual hints and gestures prod the reader in the direction of the director’s milieu: his modest yet subtly bourgeois background, the muted disappointment in the daughter who chooses Africa over Europe his preference as destination for her son’s bar mitzvah trip. (“Of all the continents, it’s Africa they choose for the transition from childhood to maturity,” he grumbles to his ex-wife.) His other child lives abroad, in Germany, with children who speak a language he doesn’t understand. His outlook on life is shaped by the conservatism of his surroundings, we come to appreciate.

By way of contrast, Trigano, despite his central place in Moses’ very personal retrospection, never emerges as much more than a rudimentary arrangement in black and white: “a talented young man from a small town in the south of Israel, formerly a transit camp for Jewish immigrants from North Africa.” Yehoshua’s words, but Moses’ thoughts; the reductive characterization is very deliberate. The director respects his screenwriter’s talent, but Trigano like Ruth still remains all but invisible to him as a human. Despite an obvious intimacy, Moses evinces an inarticulate but quite palpable ambivalence toward Ruth. Yes, he obsesses over her health, specifically an inconclusive blood test that she refuses to repeat, but his concern comes across as dutiful rather than altruistic. His relationship with Ruth which, incidentally, led to the end of his first marriage came about almost by default, and only after Trigano abandoned her to his care. Guilt, rather than genuine affection, is the trigger.

One could argue that as a filmmaker, Moses never conclusively abandoned symbolism in favor of realism, because he never quite understood the symbolic content of his own early films. It is this understanding, made vivid in the book through the tensions that Moses must negotiate between symbolism and realism in life as on screen that defines “The Retrospective.” All paths lead, inevitably, to a confrontation with Trigano. The question that remains is not whether this will happen, but what Moses will take from the meeting.

Guilt and atonement

“The Retrospective” is replete with the iconography of guilt and atonement. There are the beginnings of Moses’ epiphany, in a city famous as the end point for Christian pilgrimage and penitence; there is his impulsive decision to take part in the rite of confession in the famous cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, even though he makes it clear that he does not seek absolution. Even as he argues for the superiority of the realism and materialism in his films as against the ephemerality that obtains elsewhere, he finds himself drawn toward using the symbolism of his earlier work to unpick his relationship with the world. And, specifically, with Trigano.

But within this lies a cautionary argument against what one might describe charitably as false enlightenment. Atonement, Yehoshua seems to propose, is of no use unless it comes from a genuine appreciation of the wrongs that warrant it. Duty, especially duty that evolves from a self-serving perspective, can never suffice. The enduring tension that defines “The Retrospective” comes from Trigano’s place in Moses’ internal drama: Must Moses atone for wronging Trigano because it will make Trigano feel good, or because it will make Moses feel good?

While “The Retrospective” is intelligent, sensitive fiction, one cannot help but think that Yehoshua gets a little carried away at times. There is something contrived about the denouement, which takes Moses back to Santiago de Compostela in a quixotic act of penance after he had already returned to Israel. Unsurprisingly, this final stage is tied to the provoking incident, the painting “Caritas Romana” and beyond that the aborted scene from his final collaboration with Trigano. But the thoughtfulness of the symbolism is reduced to borderline farce, so that Moses, at the last, feels like a ridiculous caricature.

But perhaps this is the point. There is danger in reading symbolic intent where none is intended to exist a point that Moses himself makes, after a viewer at his retrospective proposes a symbolic interpretation for what was actually a pragmatic substitution in one of his films, a surrealist take on a Kafka short story. “We didn’t know about ancient Egypt,” the director replies indulgently, “and perhaps Kafka didn’t either. In any case, the historical dimension you have added ... can only deepen the understanding of our complex film.” Moses, who has recast himself as a realist filmmaker, is being ironic. But one can also make the mistake of failing to recognize symbolic intent even when it is hiding in plain sight.

One must recall that as a writer, A.B. Yehoshua has always been preoccupied with the visceral reality of Israeli identity, of the relationship between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Oriental and Occidental. The troubled relationship between Moses and Trigano has a concrete resonance that does not, in itself, require abstraction. But the symbolism is there nonetheless. As Yehoshua enters the twilight of a long and rightly celebrated literary career, it would be easy to draw parallels between Yair Moses, the celebrated director, and Abraham Yehoshua, the celebrated writer. But the potency of “The Retrospective” lies elsewhere: In his inimitable style, Yehoshua crafts a powerful and engaging allegory of modern Israeli Jewish identity. It might be a truism to observe baldly that Sephardic identity is an autonomous construct, not dependent on the munificence of Israel’s elite classes. But this is a point that eludes Moses, and Yehoshua, I think, worries that it might elude others too.

Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv.

Zvi Roger