Israel’s Impish Ice-Breaker

Etgar Keret's memoir The Seven Good Years is mellow but full of deadpan humour about life's absurdities

The first time I came across the Israeli short-story writer Etgar Keret was through a comment he made about Franz Kafka. When Kafka died in 1924, he left his diaries, manuscripts and letters with his friend Max Brod, and ordered him to burn them unread. Instead, Brod released The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, turning Kafka into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. But many manuscripts remained unpublished and Brod had to flee Prague in 1939, taking a suitcase filled with Kafka’s writing. Eventually Brod bequeathed the archive to his secretary. She left it with her daughter, a cat lover, who stored it in her apartment until a court ruling in 2012. At the time, the New York Times asked Etgar Keret what Kafka might have thought of this situation, and he replied: “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughter who keeps it in an apartment full of cats, right?”

This kind of deadpan humour in the face of life’s absurdities is quintessential Keret, who considers Kafka his greatest influence. Keret is widely celebrated for his short-story collections, including The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories (2004) and The Nimrod Flipout (2006). His short stories are quirky, surreal and eerie. They’re often told in fragments.

In contrast, Keret’s most recent book, The Seven Good Years, which is a memoir and his first work of non-fiction, is much more mellow and cohesive. He chronicles the seven years between his son’s birth and father’s death. Just as in his previous books, Keret’s voice reads like that of an old friend in these 36 self-contained, enchanting and captivating stories.

We accompany Keret on his travels to readings and book festivals. He loves flights, because on a plane “there’s no real time or real weather, just a juicy slice of limbo that lasts from take-off till landing”. At book signings he likes to make up dedications like “To Sinai. I’ll be home late tonight, but I left some cholent in the fridge” and “Bosmat, even though you’re with another guy now, we both know you’ll come back to me in the end” until the latter gets him into trouble.

Keret’s son Lev is born on the day of a suicide attack. At the hospital Keret meets a reporter who is disappointed that Keret did not see the attack, because a reaction from a writer, “someone with a little vision”, would have been good for his article. “After every attack, I always get the same reactions,” laments the reporter. “‘Suddenly I heard a boom’, ‘I don’t know what happened’, ‘Everything was covered in blood’. How much of that can you take?” he asks Keret, who takes the reader right into the most painful reality on a day that is at the same time one of his life’s most joyful.

We accompany Keret and his son on their trips to the neighbourhood playground. There, parents discuss whether they would let their children join the army later on. Keret is surprised to discover that his wife (the poet Shira Geffen) has already decided that she doesn’t want their son to join the army. “So what you’re saying is that you’d rather have other people’s children go into the army?” Keret asks hotly. “No,” she replies, “I’m saying that we could have reached a peaceful solution a long time ago, and we still can. And that our leaders allow themselves not to do that because they know that most people are like you: they don’t hesitate to put their children’s lives into the government’s irresponsible hands.” In interviews Keret has said that Israelis boycott him as a traitor, while foreigners boycott him as an Israeli.

The members of Keret’s family provide an astonishing range of insights into Israeli society. Keret’s ultra-Orthodox sister has 11 children, and lived in a settlement at one point. His peacenik brother used to work in high-tech and now campaigns for the legalisation of cannabis from his new home in Thailand.

His parents were Holocaust survivors. Keret’s father hid in a hole in a Polish town for almost 600 days. He is a warmhearted businessman who discusses the treatment options to his terminal illness as if they are a new business opportunity. Some of the book’s most glowing stories are based on the memories he leaves behind. This includes the story “Love at First Whisky”, on how he met his future wife while being arrested for drunkenly peeing against the wall of the French embassy in Tel Aviv.

At a book fair in Sicily Keret begins to understand the context of the bedtime stories his father used to tell him. The heroes of these stories were always drunks and prostitutes, says Keret, “and as a child, I loved them very much. I didn’t know what a drunk or a prostitute was, but I did recognise magic.”

 His father’s  stories were full of magic and compassion, and they were based on the time he lived on the Sicilian coast from 1946-48 in lodgings provided by the local Mafia. As he walks through the streets Keret imagines this time in his father’s life and comes to a realisation: “Compared with the horrors and cruelty he witnessed during the war, it’s easy to imagine how his new acquaintances from the underworld must have appeared to him: happy, even compassionate.”

In this universe of absurd tales and harsh realities, we find the most extraordinarily life-affirming views. Keret’s stories are deeply moving and powerful, full of wit in the face of tragedy. For all their depth, they are no longer than about four pages each. It’s possible to read them on a short commute across one zone in London or a few stops on the subway in New York, and you’re bound to leave the carriage with a slightly different view of the world.

Kafka said a book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us. Keret’s stories certainly break that ice.

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