A.B. Yehoshua’s latest novel is a story in two halves. It begins in Spain, in Santiago de Compostela, where Yair Moses, an Israeli film director, has come to attend a retrospective season of his films. Like Yehoshua himself, Moses is in his 70s. He has come with Ruth, his leading lady. It feels like a great director’s last hurrah, looking back over his work — and his life.
Moses reflects on his relationships with three people: Ruth, who was always more than just his leading actress; Toledano, his late cinematographer; and, above all, Shaul Trigano, his one-time student and then screenwriter and collaborator until the two men fell out bitterly .
The second half of the novel takes Moses back to Israel. He has a favour to ask of Trigano. The screenwriter, still angry after all these years, has his price. Moses must commit an act of atonement, an act which takes us back to an image which haunts the novel from the very beginning.
The Retrospective is a novel about the past, represented in one man’s history and Jewish history (as one might guess form the director’s surname). From the start, the location, Santiago de Compostela, might ring a few bells. It was one of the most famous medieval pilgrimage sites, a resonant name in the history of Christianity. The novel will turn out to be, in part, about the relations between Christianity and the Jews — and about forgiveness, atonement and reconciliation.
As if this isn’t enough, there are fascinating references to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, to Franco’s Spain, present-day Israel and even a Jewish story by Kafka, a lifelong passion of Yehoshua’s. But, above all, the book examines our relationship with the past.
Quietly, reflectively, Yehoshua circles round these questions. At one point, someone tells Moses that his mother believes in the film-maker’s future. “’My future?’ blushes Moses. ‘At my age?’” Moses hardly dare believe that he has a future; looking back, he sees “a career in slow decline”. He looks at his early films in disbelief. They seem remote, far away.
As for the present, says Moses, “‘the pot is still empty… and the fire’s still out.’” And yet, perhaps there is still time to find meaning at the end of his life, an act that might restore the relationships that really matter to him and bring a kind of fulfilment when he is still so troubled and melancholy.
The Retrospective has already won two literary prizes in France. It is a truly international book, a serious set of reflections about coming to terms with the past — with a surprising ending.