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A.B. Yehoshua’s Many Ghosts

The writer’s new novel, The Retrospective, is a surreal study of the contested sources of Israeli identity

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Santiago de Compostela, 2005. (Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images)
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The split between director and screenwriter, we learn, happened during the filming of their last movie together. Trigano, who was deeply in love with the actress Ruth, wrote a script in which she played a new mother who has put her baby up for adoption. In the last scene, she comes across a hungry old beggar and breastfeeds him—or she was supposed to, until Ruth objected to what seemed like an ugly and perverse scenario and refused to play along. Fatefully, Moses sided with his star, precipitating a break with his screenwriter that never healed. This, Yehoshua gives us to understand, is the moment when Moses took the side of convention against artistic daring, and in doing so condemned himself as a director and a man.

It comes as a shock to Moses, then, when he discovers in his Spanish hotel room a reproduction of a Renaissance picture that features a young woman breastfeeding a starving old man. This is actually, he learns from a local art historian, a traditional subject in European painting. It is known as “Roman Charity” and comes from an ancient Roman story about a woman who nursed her own father when he was condemned to die by starvation. Its power lies in its combination of maternal purity and the suggestion of incest: “People stop and stare in amazement at this picture,” the art historian tells Moses. “They cannot take their eyes off it, they see it come alive. Even you, sir, a citizen of the twenty-first century, were so agitated by the painting that you sent for me.”

Israeliness, no less than Americanness, turns out to be a product of the imagination

One of the things that alienates Moses from his own movies, at the retrospective, is the way the titles have been changed to suit the Spanish audience: “Slumbering Soldiers,” for instance, has become “The Installation.” So, it is an appropriate irony that the title The Retrospective, too, is an artifact of translation. In Hebrew, the translator’s note points out, the name of Yehoshua’s book is Hesed Sefaradi—that is, more or less, “Spanish” or “Sephardic Charity.” And it is only with that ghost-title in mind that the novel’s thematic structure starts to cohere. The retrospective, of course, is taking place in Spain, the homeland that the Sephardic Jews had to leave in 1492. Shaul Trigano is a Sephardic Jew from North Africa, as is Ruth; Ruth, in fact, is a stage name, which she adopted to sound more like a “normal,” that is, Ashkenazic, Israeli.

In cutting himself off from Trigano, then, Moses was not just betraying youth and creativity. He was turning his back on the Sephardic imagination, which, as embodied in Trigano, is more organic and daring than his own Ashkenazic imagination. North African immigrants, who arrived in Israel after the founding of the state, were usually shunted into poorer border regions and often discriminated against—so there is also a class element to the antagonism of the two artists.

When the inevitable reunion and confrontation with Trigano comes, late in the book, he makes this explicit: “You were incapable of deviating from your social background, transcending your safe and steady environment to connect with the outlook of someone like me, who came from the margins of society,” Trigano lectures Moses. Not coincidentally, this confrontation takes place in a border village near Sderot, at a time when the area was continually under rocket fire from Gaza. Even now, Yehoshua suggests, the burdens of Israeli society are unequally distributed between Tel Aviv and the “margins,” Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

In this way, The Retrospective, which started out seeming like a personal and even indulgent look at the psyche of an aging artist, turns out to be a study of the contested sources of Israeli identity. The novel’s system of symbols does not quite unfold organically. Like Moses’ early films, there is something deliberately over-explicit about the way certain images return to drive home a point, and this sits uneasily with the elevated realism of Yehoshua’s prose. In its last pages, in fact, The Retrospective tips over completely into surrealism, as it finds its consummation in a literary dream of Spain that is also a healing of the breach between the country and its banished Jews. In the process, Yehoshua drives home a message that is the opposite of the one in his speeches: Israeliness, no less than Americanness, turns out to be a product of the imagination.


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Myron Bassman says:

This is one of those times I feel that Kirsch has missed the obvious or maybe he finds it mundane. In any event Moses is looking back at his work of 40 years ago. He is dying. We discover that his early work’s power derived from the writer Trigano (God). Moses is the Director. And you couldn’t tell them apart. In middle age Moses falls for Ruth (compassion). On Shavuoth we celebrate the receiving of the Torah. The Megillah reading is the book of Ruth. Ruth is read as a counter to the letter of the Law. Everyone behaves properly in the book of Ruth. However, there are those who only follow the letter of the Law and lack compassion. The heroes of Ruth are thos with compassion and infuse the Law with a kind spirit. In Yehshua’s book, Ruth and Moses still share a bed, but something separates them. They are no longer fused. Law and kindness are no longer one. Obviously I haven’t read the book, but from Kirsch’s outline there are a number of other interesting supports for my uninformed tertiary reading.

I quote: Judaism in Israel is “real and not imaginary.”

Let this American Jew raise a hackle or two.

First, ‘real’ is poorly defined (in general). But even given a poorly defined definition of ‘real’, ‘imaginary’ is most definitely real. Simply put, real and imaginary are not mutually exclusive.

A better definition of real/not real, is found via the terms: Useful/not useful, meaningful/not meaningful. A full exploration of these terms is well beyond the scope of this reply.

However, given the obvious limitations of real time/virtual space:

God chose the Jews: You don’t have to ‘practice’ to be Chosen. Not now, not ever. You don’t have to be anywhere or do anything: If you’re Jewish, you’re Chosen.

Of course, what you decide to do with your Chosen nature IS your responsibility. And this decision is meaningful/useful in the extreme. Therefore, the question is not WHERE you decide to take responsibility for your Chosen nature, but WHAT you choose to do with it.

Any questions?

Jacob Arnon says:

“ow, after all, can a professional imaginer
denigrate the imaginary? What does an inventor of fictional characters
have to do with total identities?”

I have a problem with the notion of a “universal imeaginer.”

It’s like saying that because we all dream hence we are all the same. Problem is that dreams happen in images and in language and anyone who has ever learned a foreign tongue in its natural setting say Hebrew in Israel or French in France knows that at some point in the language learning process you begin to dream in the language you are learning or have just learned.

Imagination for a writer just doesn’t occur in some pure realm of images it occurs in the language you use to write your novel or poem. Yehoshua
is never more Jewish than when he is imagining his fiction in Hebrew and you are never more Anglo Jewish than when reading his novel in translation.

Yehoshua’s premise of purer Jew in Israel than in the Galut may be questionable but not when the Hebrew writer is using his imagination. Now whenever a writer is using Hebrew to give his images a habitation and a name than be he in Jerusalem or in Boston he is a 100 percent Jew. I am being a more definite than I would otherwise be because I want to drive the point home.

linda colman says:

I was quite intrigued, and am still puzzling over the fact, that so much of Moses’s spiritual transformation takes place in the context of, and by analogy to, Catholicism. Sure, Caritas Romana is a secular motif, but the Retrospective is in effect underwritten by the Catholic church, Moses makes a confession – and then there’s the De Viola family – priest, monk, and 94 year-old former silent film actress with, shall we say, interesting connections in the literary world. All quite wonderful and baffling. This appears to be another layer of a novel that will be read and talked about for a long time. Gratitude is due to Adam Kirsch for an enlightening analysis of the author’s literary (as opposed to political) treatment of Israeli identity.


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A.B. Yehoshua’s Many Ghosts

The writer’s new novel, The Retrospective, is a surreal study of the contested sources of Israeli identity

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