Review: The Retrospective, By AB Yehoshua

Confessions in the land of the Inquisition
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Halfway through AB Yehoshua's novel, Yair Moses, an ageing but distinguished Israeli film director who is in Santiago de Compostela for a retrospective of his early work, decides ,on a whim, to ask a friendly Dominican monk if he can make his confession in the city's cathedral. Everything about the confession is strange. It is made in Moses's native Hebrew which the scholarly monk, Manuel, knows well. And the director tells him that: "I don't need absolution that does not follow an act of atonement – which no one can perform in my place."

This remark, incidentally juxtaposing Jewish against Christian doctrine, goes to the core of Moses's predicament. Accompanying him is Ruth, long his leading actress, with whom he has an ambiguous relationship. In their shared hotel room hangs a reproduction of a 17th-century painting, Caritas Romana, depicting an old man suckling at the proffered breast of a young woman. Which is odd, because during the shooting of one of Moses's films years ago, Ruth's refusal to take part in an almost identical scene, and Moses's acceptance of her refusal, had enraged the film's screenwriter Trigano, Moses's collaborator and Ruth's lover. Feeling his artistic integrity violated, Trigano ended relations with both.

Moses is preoccupied by this unfinished business and thinks that confessing it all before he returns home "might restore his soul". Once back, he seeks out the deeply hostile Trigano, because he wants him to persuade Ruth, who may be seriously ill, to take blood tests. Trigano demands in return from Moses an exacting act of, yes, atonement, which provides The Retrospective's satisfying denouement.

In a translator's note, Stuart Schoffman explains the double meaning of the book's Hebrew title, Hesed Sefaradi. "Hesed" denotes "compassion, kindness, love and charity" while "Sefaradi" means "Spanish", as well as referring to the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and "more broadly", those from Arab countries. Moses, a Jew visiting the land of the Inquisition, brings Ruth, a child of Israeli immigrants from North Africa. "Sephardic", in all its meanings, haunts the book. But it is also a compelling meditation on art, memory, love, guilt. A hugely pleasurable read, it shows that in his seventies, A B Yehoshua is still producing some of his best work.