A.B. Yehoshua’s Many Ghosts
The writer’s new novel, The Retrospective, is a surreal study of the contested sources of Israeli identity
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.”
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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