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"Do you no longer believe in a world of transcendence, in what is hidden, invisible, and fantastic...?",
This review is from: The Retrospective: Translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman (Paperback)
Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua's new novel of ideas is surprising and wide-ranging, examining such issues as reality vs. the recreation of reality through art, film and myth; life, as opposed to the afterlife, and whether the afterlife is real or fantasy; the actualities of the past vs. memories of the past; the concept of guilt and whether one can atone; and the many aspects of love - love and death, love and hatred, love and jealousy. The development of these ideas, as revealed through the novel's actions and symbols, also apply to Israel and its political history - the victimization of the Jews by Spain during the Inquisition and by the Germans under the Nazis; the various branches of Judaism with their different interpretations of their obligations in Israel; the violence between residents of Gaza and Israel; the growing materialism of its current citizens; and the crassness of Moses himself when the Spanish grant him a prize.
The action begins when famous Israeli director Yair Moses travels to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain for a retrospective of his films. He arrives from Israel with Ruth, an aging actress whom he regards more as a character in his films than as a real person. All the films for the three days of the retrospective are his earliest films, made with the help of a brilliant screenwriter, Shaul Trigano, one of his former students. As the seven films shown at the retrospective are described successively, the reader becomes familiar with their themes, and the dramatic changes between these early films and Moses's most recent films become obvious. A young teacher observes, "In your latest films, the material aspect has assumed supreme importance, and not necessarily out of a new aesthetic. As if you are sanctifying the materialism of the world or succumbing to it."
The sudden change in Moses's films has come about after a disagreement with Trigano, the screenwriter, regarding a key scene which Ruth had refused to play. Moses had sided with Ruth, leading to a permanent break with Trigano. The scene in question was to be a re-enactment of an early Roman story which has fascinated artists since the days of Pompeii. It is the story of "Caritas Romana," or "Roman Charity," reflecting the plight of Cimon, an old man sentenced to death by starvation. His daughter Pero, who has just given birth, visits him, offers him her breast, and then suckles him to keep him alive. She is regarded as a heroine, the epitome of the devoted child. For Trigano, this scene was to be the high point of the film, and he has never forgiven Moses for denying it.
As Yehoshua further expands on "Caritas Romana," its symbolism for Trigano becomes obvious. Trigano believes that "There is no disgrace in art...Art makes the disgraceful beautiful and the repulsive meaningful," and he devises a unique punishment for Moses if he wants to atone for his "sin." For the reader, however, there may be no getting around the subject of "Caritas Romana," however, a subject so far from "normal" in our own society that however much one might sympathize with Trigano, identifying with this scene as "beautiful" becomes difficult. The novel is rich in ideas, and the narrative is both energizing and exciting in its possibilities, though it is sometimes slow to develop. Like so many other novels of ideas, it uses its characters to illustrate and objectify complex ideas, using them as vehicles, rather than living, breathing "humans" in a story which is, itself, fiction, not reality. The complexities come to a head in the last two pages, a resolution which will please some readers and, perhaps, strike others as facile.