The Retrospective

  • A.B. Yehoshua
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 352 pp.

In this novel that follows an artist’s quest to make sense of his life and failed relationships, an aging Israeli film director travels to Spain for a retrospective of his work and subsequently makes a personal pilgrimage through the people and places of his past life and work.

In A.B. Yehoshua’s The Retrospective, an aging Israeli film director is invited to Santiago de Compostela for a retrospective of his work. Yaim Moses is accompanied by Ruth, his long-time muse who acted in all of his films and was also, for a time, his lover. In Spain they are assigned a room together, occupying it more like a pair of tired old slippers than as partners. As the honored guest of the local film institute, Moses sits though screenings of his early films, all made with Shaul Trigano, the screen writer and close collaborator who had energized the director’s early work and had once been his pupil. The retrospective revives old memories; the locale inspires Moses to make his own pilgrimage through the people and places of his past life and work. Significantly, Moses revisits the crisis which destroyed the relationship between the two men, and forever changed the course of Moses’ career.

A painting hangs in the Spanish hotel room — it is “Caritas Romana,” or “Roman Charity,” in which a starving old prisoner is visited by a young woman. She offers the man her breast, and suckles him to keep him alive. Moses is intrigued by this numinous painting. It mimics that critical scene he was about to film, many years earlier, one in which Ruth had refused to take part, out of disgust. In an act of sympathy or respect for Ruth, Moses had acceded to her insistence that they strike the scene from the film. Trigano was stung by Moses’ disloyalty to the demands of art; he was also fueled, perhaps, by jealousy, in that Ruth had been Trigano’s lover earlier. It was at this point that Trigano had broken off his relationship with his mentor and had nothing to do with him ever again.

So far this novel is a good one in concept; its characters are clearly defined and the structure is in place. Overlaying the plot is an obvious opportunity to explore an artist’s identity over time — as a Jew, an artist or as an Israeli, both as an individual and in relationship to the significant loves of his life. Accordingly, one expects our protagonist to reach some sort of clarity with respect to himself, to his art, and to his terroir, or if our protagonist does not reach it, the reader expects to experience a degree of satiety or enlightenment on the subject. 

Unfortunately, this work of great potential disappoints. Had Trigano engineered the placement of the painting in the hotel room? What was so important about the scene that striking it could cause such anger so as to forever separate these men? Moses’ journey takes him literally through the desert as he searches for past settings of his films, and seeks out Trigano himself. Ultimately nothing is resolved for either Moses or the reader. Moses carefully constructs a do-over of the stricken scene, but there seems to be no point. Moses gains no insight and the reader is left hanging.

Whereas one expects Yehoshua’s work to be about disconnection, given his past stories and previous novels, in this instance it is more about fatigue. Wherever Moses goes to reconnect the pieces of his life and to make sense of it as a whole, he is disappointed. Moses’ children seem headed down the wrong path; he lacks enthusiasm for them as well as for virtually everyone he meets, save Ruth, for whom his ongoing affection seems to be based more on sentimentality and dependence than upon love. A moment of poignancy is reached when Moses visits his former home, which his ex-wife still inhabits. Unfortunately, after Yehoshua makes us begin to care about the fate of the ex-Mrs. M, we never see her again.

Moses sees his life as a film that might have been better acted and better edited. Unfortunately, the fatigue experienced by our narrator is transferred, unfiltered, to the reader. There are no insights or new paths forward. One must make do with witnessing our protagonist’s disappointment.

Yehoshua is a controversial figure in the U.S. for reiterating, as recently as February 2013 (as reported in“Tablet” magazine, 2/19/2013) that American Jews are only “partial” Jews, and that one can be a full Jew only by living in Israel. Given the wounded sense of identity which permeates this latest work, perhaps Mr. Yehoshua might revisit such thinking. When one draws so many boundaries and at the same time is so dependent upon connectedness, a coherent definition of identity is impossible. Unfortunately, the novel never makes this point. One senses a disconnect between heart and mind.

One expects brilliant literature from the pen of this award-winning Israeli novelist. Indeed France awarded Yehoshua the Prix Médicis étranger for The Retrospective. Perhaps that is because the French see this novel as a work of existentialism. Bien sûr, Americans are only partially existentialist, are we not? That may explain this American reader’s lukewarm reaction. 

The Retrospective was first published in Hebrew, in 2011. 

Nicole Schultheis is an attorney, freelance writer and consultant who helps federal jobseekers and former political appointees craft compelling leadership narratives for the next phases of their careers.

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