Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer known for his short stories, graphic novels and screenwriting. His latest book is The Seven Good Years (Penguin Random House, 2016), a memoir about events in his life that occurred between the birth of his son and the death of his father. Keret was scheduled to speak at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple on Sept. 25, at an event presented by the synagogue’s Centre for Contemporary Jewish Literature and the Koffler Centre of the Arts. The event was cancelled, however, after Keret broke his rib in a car accident and was ordered by his doctor not to travel. He spoke about his new book to The CJN via e-mail.
Why did you choose the seven years between the birth of your son and the death of your father to set your memoir?
My parents are both Holocaust survivors and both lost their parents at a relatively young age. The fact they couldn’t share with their late parents their greatest achievement – their ability to survive the war both physically and mentally and have children who continue the lineage that the Nazis had threatened to destroy – was something that I could always sense. Therefore, when I had a child whom I could share with my parents, I never took it for granted. I felt blessed to be both a parent and a child at the same time.
You are known for the surreal quality of your short fiction. Did you intentionally try to employ a more realist tone in the essays found in The Seven Good Years, or do you feel these essays also contain elements of surrealism, despite being non-fiction?
I feel that a memoir is an attempt to share your subjective life experience. Although one might argue about life’s objective surrealist qualities, nobody can deny that our subjective experience is always surrealistic. Sometimes, you kiss a girl and feel that you are levitating off the ground, or you feel that your late father is watching you when you receive a prize. It is these kind of experiences which I sometimes try to share with the reader. I believe that if my memoir would have been totally realistic, it wouldn’t have been loyal or true to the way my life feels.
A number of the essays reveal the anxiety you feel living in such a politically tense region. Diaspora Jews often have the (perhaps false) impression that Israelis are inured to their country’s political strife. Do you feel the stress of Israel’s politics, of things like the nuclear threat from Iran, on a daily basis?
I think that you can get used to a stressful reality, but its effects are still always there. And these effects can manifest themselves in many ways, from lack of patience with your child to over aggressiveness when you argue over a parking spot. The fact that most of the Israelis are not totally aware of the constant stress they are in doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
How does being a child of Holocaust survivors affect how you see the world?
I live my everyday life with constant awareness that the order in my life could end at any given minute, the way it did in my parents’ traumatic childhoods. I think that my parents’ experiences during the war stopped me from ever living my life on automatic pilot and from taking anything for granted. My mother once told me, while we were eating in a restaurant, “If the person sitting in the table next to you uses his fork to eat from his plate and not from yours, it means that it’s a good day. And you should be grateful for that.”
In some of the essays you describe being on literary tours of other countries and acting as a kind of de facto ambassador for Israel, especially in places where you’re the first Israeli people have met. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to represent Israel favourably on the international scene?
I feel that there is something selfless about writing and about art in general. It is never there to further your own narrow interests. It can promote empathy or other values, but it can’t, and shouldn’t, try to, get readers to root for one nationality or another. Rather, it should get readers to root for humanity and consideration of others in general. There are many things that make me proud to be Israeli, but there are other things about myself that make me more proud. My role, not only as a writer, but as a human being, is not to try to hide or beautify those things I like less, but to point to them and try to change them.
You describe in the memoir having siblings who are, in Israeli terms, quite polarized. One is a leftist who’s opted out of living in Israel, and the other is ultra-religious and living in Bnei Brak with 11 kids. Did the experience of being in a kind of grey space between familial extremes impact your art in a significant way?
My sister lives in Jerusalem. I think the fact that I grew up in such a diverse family among people with whom I don’t agree with ideologically, but at the same time who I completely respect and love took away the option to demonize and totally alienate people who think differently than me. It isn’t a choice I’ve made, but a reflex I’ve developed over the years.
You’re known as being fairly political, as an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The Seven Good Years focuses on how Israeli politics affect your family on a kind of micro scale. Were you deliberately trying to convey the ways that Israeli government policies cause strife for its citizens?
No. When I write, I don’t try to convince my readers of anything, I just try to share my experiences and emotions with them. Most of the things that bother me in Netanyahu’s ideology have much less to do with my personal discomfort and much more to do with the suffering of people I rarely interact with, people like poor Israeli citizens who don’t get the help their country should offer them, Palestinians who want to live in their own free state, Israeli Arabs who don’t get the same chances their Jewish neighbours get and African or other refugees who are victims of racism. When I write about my family’s personal experiences, they are fundamentally different from those of many in the country who are less lucky and more exploited.
Do you find that a lot gets lost in translation when your book is translated from Hebrew to English? Are we, as English-speaking readers, missing out on something key in your work?
A lot is lost in translation, because languages are different, and each of them creates a slightly different reality. The fact that Hebrew doesn’t have present continuous tense or have “it” – we only have masculine and feminine verb forms –imposes something different on an English written story translated to Hebrew, and vice versa. I don’t think a person who reads my work in English misses something so key, but for sure he reads something that is slightly different from what I wanted him to read.
What do you hope, if anything, people will take away from this book?
I was once in a book signing and a woman asked me, “What will my son learn if he reads your book?” She could see that I didn’t understand her question and was quick to explain: “I bought him this book that teaches him how to use a toilet and one that teaches him to be nice to older people. What will your book teach him?” And I answered, “To be human.”
“What do you think he is now?” she asked me angrily, “A monkey?”
I guess what I’m trying to do in all my books is to share some emotions or thoughts with the reader. He won’t learn how to love his country more or how to eat less fattening food, but he’ll be required to empathize and identify with emotions that are very similar, yet still different, from the ones he knows.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.