A. B. Yehoshu’s elegant and compulsively ruminative novel The Retrospective examines the tricks of memory, the slipperiness of motivation, and the many versions of the ‘truth’ –all through the life of aging Israeli film director Yair Moses. Moses once had a solid, collaborative working relationship with screenwriter, Trigano, a former student, but this relationship was irrevocably ripped asunder during the filming of their seventh film, The Refusal when the female star, and Trigano’s lover, Ruth, refused to perform a scene. Moses took Ruth’s side against the screenwriter, and Trigano never worked with Moses again. This incident, seemingly trivial in nature, marked a turning point in the lives of Moses, Trigano and Ruth. Now decades later, Trigano has vanished into obscurity, Moses has become an acclaimed film director whose style–without Trigano–is vastly different and more accessible, and Ruth has become Moses’s companion and sometime lover. The uproar over the scene that Ruth refused to perform is buried deep in the past, and yet it offers an apparently simple explanation for the rupture, and forms an established narrative for why Trigano, Moses and Ruth’s lives took a completely different direction. But there’s another person missing from Moses’s past, and that’s Toledano, the cinematographer who gave the films a branded look. While Moses mourns the fact that Toledano who died some years previously is absent from the festival, he only has painful memories of Trigano.
When the story begins, Moses is invited to a retrospective of his films in Spain to be held in the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela over the course of a few days, and Moses and Ruth arrive tired yet ready to perform for the audience and hosts. Oddly, and Moses begins to suspect it’s no coincidence, a painting which hangs over the bed in the hotel room depicts the same sort of scene that was cut from The Refusal and led to the rupture between Moses, Ruth and Trigano. Moses is initially surprised that only his first films, now dubbed in Spanish, are represented at the festival–after all, some of these films he’s almost entirely forgotten and he considers them his early work–not necessarily his best.
For part of the novel, the story seemed, for this reader, to be about Trigano–a man whose absence creates an abyss in the lives of Moses and Ruth. Although he is not present, we see slivers of his talent, personality and his trademark “mystical and symbolic touches” through the films Moses watches during the 7-film retrospective. But there’s yet another intriguing aspect of this novel, and that’s the way three men: scriptwriter, Trigano, director Moses, and cinematographer Toledano all love Ruth in their own fashion, and make her the centre of their lives even as they fail to see her as a human being but as a “character” to be fashioned (by director Moses), worshipped (by cinematographer Toledano), and even to be a representation of ideas (by her lover, screenwriter Trigano). Moses has buried his damaged relationship with Trigano and its painful memories in the past, but now for the film retrospective, he’s forced to remember their working relationship, and he even finds himself forced to explain some of Trigano’s more obscure symbolism to an audience of enthusiastic film lovers.
And even though many years have gone by with no contact at all between the two, Moses still feels the stump of amputation, and he believes the screen writer feels it too, even if he is too proud to admit it.
After all, once they parted ways, Moses continued to make feature films, first from screenplays written by others and later, as success favored him, from scripts he wrote himself based on original ideas or adapted from books. Whereas the screenwriter’s output was confined to short esoteric films, and then, when his new collaborators proved incompetent and saddled the productions with financial problems, he stopped making films altogether and went into teaching.
Sometimes Moses feels a vague desire to get back in touch, but he never does. Reconciliation after a serious breakup is harder than smoothing feathers after an argument. when they ran into each other at public events, at festivals or symposia, they barely exchanged more than a few empty words. Moses had at first believed that Trigano left him because of the affront to his professional dignity, but when he saw that the writer had left his friend and lover too, Moses understood that Trigano’s pride was injured not only be a director’s excessive indulgence of an actress repulsed by a twisted script but also by the extreme kindness of another man to a distressed woman whom Trigano regarded as his own.
This is the established narrative of the events that took place many years ago, and it’s this narrative–honed to perfection–that helps Moses makes sense of the events that took place during the filming of his 7th and last film made with Trigano. During the retrospective, however, as Moses watches his early films, he’s forced to confront the artistic endeavors that he’s all but forgotten. In the very deliberate selection of the early films (the “marvelous ones,” according to the priest who organizes the retrospective) Moses “cannot shake off the suspicions that this retrospective was engineered by Trigano to compel him to defend the writer’s fantasies.” Moses senses the hand of Trigano at work, and after the festival concludes, he seeks answers through retracing the crucial moments in their collaborative careers.
As a film aficionado, for this reader The Retrospective was both an unusual and riveting read. We are taken slowly through the retrospective as Moses rewatches all seven of his early films and replays scenes from his past. Forced to confront an uncomfortable relationship he’d rather forget, he begins to question his version of events, and gradually his established narrative of what happened is dismantled.
Memory, the ‘Truth,’ and motivation are not the only elements to be examined in this complex novel as through the lives of Trigano and Moses, we also see the destructive power of artistic differences and the role and responsibility of the artist in society. Rewatching and later retracing the early films, Moses comes to realize just how deeply intelligent Trigano was, and just how much of the symbolism and political content placed in the films by the screenwriter he initially missed. The book’s conclusion seems a little anticlimactic and disappointing–can’t say too much without giving away the plot. Luckily the ending didn’t undermine the power of the rest of this complex, contemplative novel, but perhaps just how much we like or dislike Trigano and Moses and which one seems to be the worst, more difficult (insufferable) egomaniac may impact how we feel about the final scene. This is a book that’s liable to generate a lot of lively discussion in book groups.
Review copy. Translated by Stuart Schoffman.