The Israeli author on the dramatic family histories that fuel his work, the broken promises of his homeland, and the sanctuary of literature.
Image by Yanai Yechiel.
Etgar Keret didn’t always aspire to be a writer. In his new memoir, The Seven Good Years, Keret says he crafted his first piece of fiction while he was nineteen and a “terrible, depressed soldier” in compulsory service for the Israel Defense Forces. Later, Keret showed the story to his older brother, who loved it, praising the piece as “awesome” and “mind-blowing.” “He asked, ‘Do you have another copy?’ I said I did,” Keret writes. “He gave me a big-brother-proud-of-his-little-brother smile, then bent down and used the printed page to scoop up the dog’s shit and drop it in the trash can.
And that was the moment I realized that I wanted to be a writer.”
Keret learned something when his brother threw his first piece in the garbage bin: “The story I had written wasn’t the creased, shit-smeared paper now sitting in the bottom of the trash can on the street. That page was just the pipeline through which I could transmit my feelings from my mind to his.”
The youngest child of three, Keret grew up in the small Israeli city of Ramat Gan. His parents were Holocaust survivors. After leaving the Defense Forces, he went on to write five short story collections, a children’s book, and two comics, along with works for film and television. A recipient of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, he may now be one of Israel’s top exports.
Keret’s characters are usually well-meaning, lackluster males with middling ambitions. Plots can center on the importance of unconditional love, such as in “Fatso” from The Nimrod Flipout, wherein a guy dating a beautiful woman discovers that his lover transforms into a loudmouthed, obese, soccer-obsessed man every night. He decides to befriend the ogre and love the daytime-lovely woman, anyway. Keret’s stories can also be self-referential, about the act of telling the story itself, like the title piece for his short story collection Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, which was originally published in Guernica in 2012. All are improvisational: “I never know the endings when I write,” he tells me. For some authors, this would be a dangerous route, yet Keret thrives in this unknown territory.
The Seven Good Years is Keret’s first memoir. The title refers to the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father. Keret has said he had no specific intention of creating an autobiography; he was simply moved to write when his son was born. Keret paints a nuanced portrait of what it’s like to be a family man in a war-torn country. He shows us an Israel where terrorism pervades everyday events, including the birth of one’s child.
In year one of the seven good years, Keret is in the waiting room while his wife is in the maternity ward. The hospital is overwhelmed; the admissions staff scrambles to accommodate the sudden influx of patients, injured by an act of terrorism. A reporter who spots Keret finds the scene unremarkable, another endless moil of blood and gore. Keret agrees with the fatigued reporter and says, “It’s just that the attacks are always the same. What kind of original thing can you say about an explosion and senseless death?”
“Beats me,” the reporter replies. “You’re the writer.”
Much later in the memoir, a rocket attack occurs while the Kerets are driving down a highway. Procedure says they must lie down by the side of the road, so Keret improvises a game for his fearful seven-year-old, called “Pastrami Sandwich.” Keret and his wife lie on the ground with their son between them, soothed by their presence. No matter what one’s political stance may be on Israel, it’s an affecting, personal moment. (Perhaps it’s intimate scenes such as these that make Keret reluctant to publish the book in his home country. In fact, he may choose never to publish The Seven Good Years in Israel.)
I wait for Keret in a crowded restaurant on West Twelfth Street in Manhattan. He is across the street, saying good-bye to the European camera crew that has been filming a documentary about him as he treks around the world on his book tour. Keret, who has said his favorite religious holiday is Yom Kippur—the Jewish day of atonement—leans forward as they pack up. His posture reads as apologetic, a mood that seems to spread to the film crew. Apologies make for long farewells.
When Keret finally sits down with me, we speak at length about writing, the inherent complexity of the Hebrew language, and what it’s like to live in Israel “since the last war.” As Keret discusses his country, he becomes increasingly passionate, not so much about the many enemies just outside its borders, but enemies to democratic dialogue within the nation itself—including “Jews killing Jews.” Keret worries about Israel and where it is headed. “Sorry to talk so much about politics,” he says. “It just means so much to me.”
—Meakin Armstrong for Guernica
Etgar Keret: I have some fine motor skills problems—I was diagnosed—so there was this expression in my family: “complicated food.” I would say, “This sounds good, but it’s complicated food.” [pointing to my dish of eggs] That’s what I would refer to as “complicated food.”
Guernica: You said you were diagnosed with something?
Etgar Keret: Yes, I was diagnosed with a kind of sensitive motor skill thing. Like putting butter on bread: if I do that, I will most likely tear the bread because I will do it too strongly. I think maybe it has to do with—I was born at six months, and I weighed 900 grams [less than two pounds]. I have a very heroic birth story.
Guernica: Tell me your heroic birth story.
Etgar Keret: For my mother, having a family was the most important thing in her life. In the Second World War, it was a challenge—surviving physically and mentally and finding somebody who you loved and who was willing to be with you. She had my brother and sister, then she had five miscarriages, one after the other. She wasn’t that well to begin with, because of the war. When she was pregnant with me, she wasn’t young anymore, and there were complications. I had jaundice, and the umbilical cord was tied around my neck. The doctor said to my mother, “Listen, there’s no way you’re going to have a healthy child. If you insist on birth, then most likely, you’ll die, too, and your kids will be orphans.”
My father told me that when the doctor said that to them, my mother said, “It’s okay, my husband is very competent; he can raise him.” So I was born, and I weighed 900 grams. She said her first memory of coming back from the anesthesia was two doctors placing a bet on how long it was going to take before I died. She heard them saying, “Twenty bucks he’s going to die in a week.”
That’s very Israeli, by the way. I don’t think that sort of thing happens very often in America. So she called me “Challenge,” because it was a challenge to have me, or a challenge for me to be alive.
Etgar means “challenge.” And my family name is Keret, which means “urban.” So my name is “urban challenge.” My joke is, it’s a good description of a birth but a strange name for a human being.
When I was a kid, I wanted to make my parents happy. I’d always say to them, “What do you want me to do? Do sports? Be rich? Be funny?” My mother would say, “Whatever we want from you, you already gave us—we wanted you to be alive, and you made it.” So basically I lived in an environment where I couldn’t fuck up. I could be homeless, I could rob banks. They wanted me to be alive.
In my stories I can kiss the girls I want to kiss and punch the girls I want to punch. Nobody pays a price for it.
Guernica: One often hears about children of Holocaust survivors: the past hangs over them, a dark specter. Did you have that?
Etgar Keret: I had it in a very different way. I think the typical way is that usually Holocaust survivors are known to be very quiet and full of anxiety, many of them don’t like life, don’t trust people. But my parents were children during the Holocaust. And my father was very optimistic. He said, “All of my childhood was horrible, and ever since then, it’s been getting better. I have a feeling it’s going to get even better.”
Very early on, I realized how much my parents—especially my mother—had suffered. She saw her mother and brother killed in front of her eyes. She had to take care of herself ever since she was seven years old. As a child, I never wanted my parents to be unhappy, which meant that I would always contemplate what would make them happy.
I think this is actually one of the things that led me to writing, because writing was a kind of space where I could just be myself and not give a fuck. For example, I was sitting with my wife on a bench in Italy, and there was this beautiful fountain. I said to my wife, “Let’s move to another playground.” She said to me, “Why?” It was because there was a family with a girl behind us and we were blocking their view. It’s kind of a reflex for me to ignore my own wishes and think about other people first. But in my stories I can kiss the girls I want to kiss and punch the girls I want to punch. Nobody pays a price for it; I don’t feel like I’m taking anything from anyone.
Guernica: Are you in the US right now to teach writing?
Etgar Keret: It’s a two-week course. People can study with me; they don’t even have to be students. It’s an open program. Strange, but usually it gets you better students because they don’t come for credit, they actually have to pay and take a vacation to come.
Guernica: What do you tell your students?
Etgar Keret: I say, “Nobody’s going to teach you how to write, but find a supportive group, kind of like an AA, because we have a situation where writing is not something the world legitimizes.” If you say to your partner, “I can’t do that because I’m writing,” they’ll say, “Oh, cut the shit, take the dog out.”
In America, where writers are preoccupied with the craft of writing, I always try to introduce this concept of the badly written good story. Turning the hierarchy around and putting passion on top and not craft, because when you just focus on craft, you can write something that is very sterile. It looks beautiful, but soulless. So I warn them that, often in writing programs, articulation and clarity are more important than what you actually say. Sometimes you have, like, New Yorker stories—there’s a couple, they’re on a cruise, he’s becoming senile, he doesn’t want to acknowledge it, when the woman mentions it to him, he becomes really angry, but in the end he admits it and they sit on the deck, she closes her eyes. And you say, “It’s so well-written, but who gives a fuck?” For certain, the guy who wrote it doesn’t give a fuck. It’s not something that has to do with his life; it’s just something well-written and illuminating, and writing is not about that. The best stories you usually hear are stories that people feel some type of urgency about.
Nobody else in the world would look at writing as craftsmanship—it’s totally this Protestant hardworking ethic. You go into this kind of infinite space of imagination and you fence yourself in with all kinds of laws. Why do we have to keep playing this strange game?
Guernica: It is very American to be concerned about craft. Often when I’m considering fiction for Guernica, I’m not sure what the author actually wanted to write about.
Etgar Keret: I taught at Wesleyan. When students gave comments and they said, “The paragraphs are too long; you’re using too many commas,” I said, “Did you like this story?” And they started thinking if they liked it or not. It’s like if somebody were to look at a chair and say, “It’s too colorful, and I don’t like the fact that you can really notice that it’s made of wood,” and I say, “Would you mind sitting on it?” and you sit on it, and it breaks. The story has a function—to communicate something that you’re passionate about.
Guernica: In your own writing, have you ever created a character who’s evil?
Etgar Keret: First of all, I don’t believe that such people exist. I really believe hatred is not a primal emotion, in that you can’t find it in nature. It’s basically some kind of distortion of fear. People can do horrible things and can be totally fucked up, but the concept that there are people walking this earth like Darth Vader…
Do you have patience for a really long story, one with a moral?
Guernica: Of course.
Etgar Keret: Apparently, I’m very, very popular in jails. They often ask me to come and speak. One day, they invited me to the maximum-security ward, the most protected ward in all the country. The jailer said to me, “Sit in that chair. There are three meters between you and the closest inmate—if they stand up, cover your face and bend forward. I guarantee we are going to get the prisoner before he hurts you.”
Most of them were murderers. But when I went there to talk, they were the nicest people. I did a reading. I said, “Thank you,” and then they said to me, “Could you talk some more?” And I said, “Why?” and they answered, “Most of us are in solitary confinement, so the moment you finish talking, they take us back to our cells. We like hanging out here together.”
They told me that, once a week, they got to watch a movie. I asked them what was the last film they saw, and they said it was one of the Dirty Harry movies. I said, “I don’t want to be rude, but when you see these movies, who do you root for, Dirty Harry or the bad guy?” They said, “Dirty Harry, of course.” I said, “Maybe it’s not nice to say, but if you were in one of those movies, he would murder you.” One of the guys told me, “I’m not saying I didn’t kill that guy, but if you were there and you heard how he spoke to me, you would’ve also stabbed him thirty times with a screwdriver. I got an asshole judge. I’m not like the bad guys in the movie. I’m just unlucky.” I think this guy deserves to be in jail because he killed somebody. But then there’s his point of view.
I don’t need art to tell me people are assholes. I can just go into the streets.
Guernica: What makes a person evil, then, is point of view?
Etgar Keret: I’m not saying that I don’t experience people in life as evil, but writing is not a place of alienation; writing is the place where we can try to be human. I think there are some artists whose works are misanthropic. When I see this kind of stuff, I think, they’re smart, but I don’t need art to tell me people are assholes. I can just go into the streets.
For example, I went with my mother to Poland. She hadn’t been there since the war…
Guernica: You first went to Poland somewhat recently, during the “seven good years.” You went back with your mother?
Etgar Keret: We went a few weeks ago. Very emotional.
Guernica: I bet. She lived in the Warsaw Ghetto and hadn’t been back since the Holocaust. Did you stay in the Keret House?
Etgar Keret: I can show you a photo of my mom, my brother, and my son in the house. We went to a museum with eight galleries. They had maybe six that showed all kinds of stuff and then the seventh gallery was on the Holocaust. My mother said to the guy, “Oh, we don’t need to see that one, I know that one—let’s see another.” And there was [a sense of], “I know how horrible life can be, but if it’s up to me, I’d rather go to places that are more hopeful.”
Why should she want to see stuff about the Holocaust? Why should she see murder when her parents were killed?
Guernica: Let’s talk about where you grew up. What is it like to live in Israel right now?
Etgar Keret: In the last war, everything changed. I was always used to being in this position where people disagreed with me. But in the last war, people became vocal from the right-wing point of view: if you’re liberal, then you’re a traitor. I was talking to this taxi driver, and she was speaking very harshly against the left wing, and I said to her, “Look, we may disagree, but we’re the same people,” and she said, “You’re not my people, you’re worse than Hamas; you’re my enemy.”
During the war, there were people wishing me death, wishing my son death, wishing my wife death in very graphic ways. In the past, I would go overseas and I would say, “Israel is like my family: we disagree, but we’re all brothers.” I can’t say that anymore, because life proves me wrong. If we’re a family and your brother wishes you death, it’s not a very happy family.
Guernica: Would you move away?
Etgar Keret: What connects me so strongly to Israel is the fact that I’m second generation. My parents said, “We have a place where we can just be ourselves and nobody says, ‘Don’t tell me your opinion, you damn Jew, go somewhere else.’” Then you go to this country and other Jews tell you to shut up. It’s frustrating. I think that we have a bad government and that some people are fearful. They’re going with the class bully. But I really truly believe—you read it in my stories—that deep inside, people have goodness.
Guernica: I see that in your fiction. But where I’m from—I went to school right next door to where the shootings happened in Charleston, South Carolina. My family is dealing with the grief. For you, that violence takes place almost every day.
Etgar Keret: In Israel, we’re very used to people dying, but the concept of Jews killing Jews is a pretty new one. We’re used to terrorism, but the fact that a Jew will kill a Jewish prime minister, the fact that people will come with a baseball bat and beat the shit out of left-wing demonstrators just because they disagree with them, the fact that people like me get death threats—it’s not in our ethics. Think about it: this idea where, in this safe haven for Jews, Jews will threaten to kill other Jews, it wasn’t in the brochure.
Guernica: What does your mother think? Israel was supposed to be her sanctuary after the Holocaust.
Etgar Keret: It was heartbreaking how difficult it was for them to see what was going on in my country. They’re very hopeful people, so they really believe that it can change. But there were moments where I would feel sad and almost ashamed. I would say, “What the hell is going on? It shouldn’t happen this way.” My father—I once asked him what was his greatest achievement. He said his greatest achievement was that he fought in five wars in the infantry, always on the front line, and never hurt anybody.
Guernica: Your mother was in the Warsaw Ghetto. What was your father’s Holocaust experience?
Etgar Keret: Before the Germans came to the town that [my father’s family was] in, the shtetl, they heard they were going to send them to camp and kill them. There was a farmer who was a Christian—I think he was around eighty years old. His family dug a hole in the ground. It wasn’t very deep, and it was extremely wide. In this hole, it was my father and his family: my father, his daughter, his parents, and I think two other people. The son of this farmer was a German collaborator. He didn’t know that his father was hiding Jews, but he said to the Germans, “My father has a farm; you can have your headquarters there.” Basically, they put an SS force twenty meters from where my father’s family was hiding, so they couldn’t come out. They had to stay there for 620 days in this hole, and the farmer would throw some bread and take a bucket with a sheet and stuff, but the hole—you couldn’t stand in it, you couldn’t lie in it, you could only sit. And after 620 days, when the Russians had liberated this area, their muscles were so contracted that they couldn’t move, basically.
When it got better, the Russians caught the son of this guy and wanted to execute him, and my grandfather went to them and told them this story about how the father had saved him, and he said, “He’s an old guy, and you can’t just kill him in the town hall.” They say that my grandfather was a very good speaker, so the colonel said, “Okay, we’ll send him to Siberia instead. We won’t kill him.” And my grandfather went to the farmer and he said, “You saved our life, I didn’t know how I could repay you, but I talked to them, and now they’re not going to kill your son.” The farmer said, “Why won’t they kill him?” and my grandfather said, “Because of what you did.” He said, “There’s no connection between the two things. Please go to them and say that they should kill him.” And my grandfather had to tell the Russians, so they killed his son. Don’t fuck with Russians.
Guernica: How old were you when they told you stories like this?
Etgar Keret: They came all throughout my life. My parents didn’t talk a lot about the Holocaust, but sometimes one story would come, or another.
Guernica: Tell me about your wife. How did you two meet?
Etgar Keret: I’m not sure if it’s a good story, because I sort of come off like an asshole.
Guernica: All the more reason to tell it.
Etgar Keret: I like smoking pot, but I’m not the kind of guy who smokes every day. My friend said, “I got this really, really good pot, do you want to smoke it?” and I said, “Sure.” We smoked, and after five minutes, I was on the carpet lying down. And he said to me, “You know what, my mom is supposed to come from out of town. She’s going to stay tonight, so you have to leave.” I said, “I can’t.” So he called this friend of his who had a car, and he said, “Listen, this guy here is a friend of mine. He’s really stoned and he can’t move, and my mother is supposed to come home. If she comes home and sees this, it’ll be really inappropriate. Can you come with the car and take him home?” So the guy said, “Sure.”
He came by with his girlfriend, who is now my wife. They carried me to the car. And then when they took me home, they put me in bed, and they kind of wanted to go away. Then I said to my now-wife, “Now, I’m in bed, you should tuck me in and give me a good-night kiss.” She kind of looked at her boyfriend and then she kissed me on the cheek, and they left. I think the next time I met her was a couple of years later. I didn’t make a great impression on her that night. If the first date is a metaphor for how your life is going to be, she’s been carrying me on her back ever since, you know?
I think living in Israel and wanting to change reality is the best prescription for never-ending writer’s block.
Guernica: Your story in Guernica, “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door”—did you know the ending when you started writing it?
Etgar Keret: I never know the endings when I write. It’s a turnoff when you know the ending. You lose much of your incentive to write when you already know. It’s like seeing a movie a second time.
I wrote this story during this very long kind of writer’s block. I think all those [characters] are not really people; they’re parts of me that force me to write.
Guernica: Ah, so you’re the Swedish guy—
Etgar Keret: I’m all of them. It’s a very—how do you call it in English when they cut your balls off? Castrate? Writing is very castrating in the moment. Fiction in general, it has no function, nobody asks for it. You take a book, and what can you do with a book? Can you cook an egg on a book? No. Can you dig a hole? No. Is it a good weapon? No. The fact that it’s good for nothing kind of makes it almost all-important. I think living in Israel and wanting to change reality is the best prescription for never-ending writer’s block.
Guernica: How often do you get writer’s block?
Etgar Keret: I don’t like the expression “writer’s block” because I think it presupposes that you have a problem with your plumbing. I really think it’s the other way around. I think when you write, you should call it a “writing spree.” I don’t write every day, and I don’t write regularly. It’s funny, but I think my stories—the good ones—they’re much smarter than I am.
Guernica: What made you want to write a memoir?
Etgar Keret: When my son was born, the day he was born was the first time I wrote this kind of personal piece. I think it came out because I felt very emotional, but I couldn’t really figure out what I was feeling. I thought it would be a good way to sort out my emotions. And I always had this kind of notion that, when my son is a hundred years old, he’d find it and maybe it’d be helpful for him or something. So I wrote those pieces and published them—usually not in Israel, because I find them too personal.
I never thought about them as a book until my father became ill. Then suddenly I had this strong urge to put something out there, to make a statue or something.
Guernica: I didn’t expect to find your book so illuminating about life in Israel.
Etgar Keret: If you [were to] do the world championship of victimhood in modern times, then the finals would probably be between Jews and Palestinians. Actually, I think the Jews win: we go from the Spanish Inquisition to pogroms to the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion to World War II and the Holocaust—it’s a horrible history. And if you look at the Palestinian world, victimized by every entity in the Middle East, they were massacred in every country.
I think that, in Israel, the greatest fear that people have, and I have it, too, is this fear of genocide. If you scare somebody enough, they stop being rational. I think we’ve been intimidated enough to stop being rational.
Hebrew was frozen, like frozen peas, fresh out of the Bible.
Guernica: I’m curious about your thoughts on language and translation. Is a story different to you somehow after it has been translated from Hebrew to English?
Etgar Keret: Yeah. I think that the most dominant aspect is the language. When I published my first book, I would say 90 percent of the reviews [in Israel] were simply about the language and the choice of language. And when my books were translated, it was always about the characters, because the unique language aspect was lost in translation.
Hebrew is this unique thing that you cannot translate to any other language. It has to do with its history. About 2,000 years ago, people stopped speaking Hebrew because of the diaspora. So people who went to Rome spoke Latin, people who moved to the US spoke English, people spoke Yiddish, but they didn’t speak Hebrew. They knew the words, but it was a written language—they read prayers, they knew the language well, but it wasn’t spoken. I think the logic behind it would be that you don’t need to use the language of God to ask where the restrooms are.
Then somebody took this frozen language and defrosted it in the microwave of history, and people spontaneously started speaking it. And the thing that happened when people started speaking this language is it was kind of a miracle. If Shakespeare were to come here and hear us speak, he wouldn’t understand a word we were saying, but if Abraham or Isaac took a taxi in Israel, they could communicate with the taxi driver. He’d understand what they are saying because the language didn’t organically change. It was frozen, like frozen peas, fresh out of the Bible.
We import words from other languages and we put them in Israeli verb form. Like for cocaine, we say in Hebrew, lesniff. We have many words like this from Russian, from Arabic. What happens when you speak colloquial Hebrew is you switch between registers all the time. So in a typical sentence, three words are biblical, one word is Russian, and one word is Yiddish. This kind of connection between very high language and very low language is very natural, people use it all the time.
So when my works are being translated, I always get this question from my translators: Up or down? Which means, should it sound biblical and highbrow, or should we take it all down to sound colloquial? In Hebrew, it’s both all the time.
People in Israel would write in a high register, they wouldn’t write colloquial speech. I do a special take on colloquial speech. When I started writing, I thought [the language] was telling the story of this country: old people in a young nation, very religious, very conservative, very tight-assed, but also very anarchistic, very open-minded. It’s all in the language, and that’s one thing that doesn’t translate.
Guernica: In English, your style is simple and straightforward. You get involved in what is going on when a character sticks his hand down the hole and finds the gumball machine. We think about that, rather than the prose. But in Hebrew, you’re saying it would be both?
Etgar Keret: I think that, in Hebrew, it’s like the language creates a more unique and specific universe even before the story. I usually start writing stories from tone and not from content—kind of like people who create music and invent the lyrics later on. I often give this metaphor where I say that writing short fiction is like surfing, while writing a novel is like navigating with your car. So when you navigate with your car, you want to get somewhere. When you surf, you don’t want to get somewhere, you just don’t want to fall off your board. I think the equivalent of balance is tone, so I think tone gives birth to the story.
Often, the stories are very much like trust falls. You fall, and you hope the story’s going to catch you. And sometimes you fall and say, “I have this bump on my head. Where was the fucking story?” I remember a point in [writing] the story where I said, “This isn’t working, I should go and buy something at the supermarket or my wife will kill me.” Then I said, “No, I’ll go on.” Sometimes the stories are smarter than me, and suddenly these things start to make sense. But the engine of the story had nothing to do with plot. Just with rhythm.
Like [the story] “Cheesus Christ”—it started with that phrase. I said, “Wouldn’t it be strange if there were a hamburger place, but [kosher] Jews couldn’t eat there?” You don’t really notice it, but there is something about this rhythm that leads you. And you say, “Whoa, a story came out of it.”
That is one of my favorite stories, just because it was a story that demanded the most trust out of me. As the son of Holocaust survivors, this is life—you’re put in a corner, and you have to get out. I believe that you can always get out.
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