Not long ago, the Israeli writer Etgar Keret was sitting in a restaurant with his son Lev when a waiter said something that made him angry. The child of two Holocaust survivors, raised in a house where the creative insult was an art form, Keret responded with a sharp word. And then each time a new server approached their table Keret complained to them, too. Keret moved slowly up the line, getting angrier each time, all the way through the entire restaurant staff.
“I insulted each and every one of them,” Keret remembers dolefully on a recent morning in Manhattan, well into his third espresso with no apparent effect on his bearing. “In the end the manager came and apologized and he brought Lev a cake. And Lev said to me, ‘You know, now I understand, this is how people should live. We should shout at people and humiliate them and then they bring you stuff.’
“And this is when I realized that I should change.”
Keret does not appear to be an angry man, and in fact comes off as exactly the opposite. Small and warmly handsome, perpetually disheveled, he radiates kindness. Like a tiny Jewish, stonerish George Clooney. But there are equal parts steel and down inside him, and in the past decade — raising a child for the first time, watching his father’s health decline — he found his attempts to reconcile them coming to a reckoning point.
He tells the story of this balancing act in The Seven Good Years, his first memoir. Like his five collections of very short stories, the book is niftily, tidily made. No chapter is longer than a few pages, and yet each one delivers a well-aimed punch or a burst of hilarity. Often, it’s both.
The book begins with the birth of Keret’s son — the first personal essay Keret ever wrote — and ends with the account of a rocket assault on Tel Aviv, during which Keret and his wife, Shira, pull over on a highway and distract Lev from the danger by playing a game called pastrami, in which Keret lies beneath his son and his wife atop him, making a human deli sandwich.
In between the book builds a vivid and moving portrait of Keret’s parents, their fierce and generous nature. It was from them in equal measure that Keret learned the power of narrative. “My mother was very, very good at kind of making up stories,” Keret says. “My father would only tell me stuff that had really happened.”
Both of their lives were the stuff of grim fairy tales. Keret’s mother was born in Poland and was the only member of her family to survive the war. She used to smuggle food into her ghetto since she was so small and would not be suspected. After the war, she was sent to an orphanage in her native country, then to France, and from there to Israel.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Poland, for two years Keret’s father hid in a hole in the ground so small no one could stand. A Christian man smuggled food to Mr. Keret and his family and hauled out their waste. Then a Nazi battalion built its headquarters very nearly on top of their hiding place.
“His sister got caught very close to the town they were hiding in,” Keret tells me. “They tortured her to death but she didn’t tell where they were hiding.”
When I ask Keret what his father did to pass the time in this horrific situation, he answers with a miniature story.
“My father once said to me, he said he thinks that every person is the world champion at something, adding: ‘I was lucky enough to discover what was my great talent in this world,’ and it was to sleep.
“So he said, ‘I basically fell asleep, I woke up, I asked my father, was the war over? He said no, I took a piss, I went to sleep. I woke up, I said, ‘Now?’ And he said no. I ate something and went to sleep.’ That’s the way he portrays it — like he was hibernating for two years.”
Keret’s conversational mode often involves such detours, digressions, all played out in stories about his family’s or his own life.
Aside from a sleep disorder that meant Keret’s father walked nearly ten miles a night in his bed, Keret says the trauma of that hibernation did not visibly mark his father, that he emerged from the war with an intense love of other people, of all kinds.
“When I grew up, in Israel in the seventies, it was a very, very strong anti-German sentiment, and I think that my father always made the point to tell me stories about good Germans that he met in the war.”
Growing up in the shadow of these stories explains Keret’s nature, and probably also his the sharply idiosyncratic and wryly humorous voice of his writing. “I experience life around me as kind of absurd,” he says.
“It’s actually another way of capturing our humanity. It’s kind of like somebody who’s scared of a dog saying to himself, ‘It’s a nice dog. He doesn’t want to hurt me. I just petted him, it’s gonna be okay.’ ”
As he talks about absurdism, we come back to the Holocaust and other stories his father told him. Keret references Wislava Szymborska’s poem “Could Have,” which lists a series of reasons why people survived, each of them contradictory, and then he tells another story.
“We had very few relatives that stayed alive — but one of my father’s relatives, the reason that he stayed alive was really because he was asleep all the time.” During an escape from a camp, the man decided he was simply too sleepy to keep running and so he was left behind. The Nazis caught all the others and killed them. Meanwhile, the sleepy relative survived.
As a child, Keret was left alone a lot of the time with these stories rattling around in his head. He would often skip school, and his parents were hands-off in their approaching to raising their three children. “I used to wonder how I would fare in the Holocaust,” Keret says. He remembers once lying under his bed to see how long he’d last if he had to hide; fifteen minutes later he got up.
The Tel Aviv of Keret’s youth was full of survivors — the very lucky and the very tough, many of them both. Especially Keret’s mother. Keret finishes his espresso and brings out his phone to show me a photograph of a woman in her twenties, dressed to the nines. A man in the background obviously likes what he sees: “I want to go and build a time machine and slap this guy for looking at my mom’s a*s,” Keret says, laughing.
Her looks could be deceiving: Keret tells a story about a local hoodlum his mother once caught beating up Etgar’s young cousin. “My mother ran to him in high heels and she held him with one arm and held his hair and said to him, ‘Tommy, you know, you’re a rabid animal. But you’re not a stupid rabid animal. So I’m gonna take you now and you’re gonna sniff this cousin and you’re gonna sniff my son and you’re gonna remember the smell. You can go around, you can kill whoever you want, you can burn whatever you want. But you will never touch them again.’
“And the guy, he turned his face to her and he spit on my mom, and he says, ‘Who cares, what are you gonna do, you gonna call the police?’ And my mother, she didn’t even flinch, she was just holding him by his hair, and she said, ‘You know what I’m gonna do?’ And she turned his head so she’s facing him, she said, ‘I’m gonna kill you. And I’m gonna put your body in this dumpster. And not even your mother’s gonna come to you because nobody’s gonna miss you.’ ”
Keret said scenes like this and others — another one involved his mother breaking a beer bottle and looking at a very large man trying to snatch her purse and saying, “Such a shame, such a pretty face” — taught him a kind of toughness.
“My mother said to me, ‘When you fight with somebody, don’t ever think of how strong he is because it’s not important. Just try to figure out how far will he go.’ ”
This lesson never merged for Keret into a political lesson about Israel, at least in its ongoing fight with Palestinians. His father’s attitude about fighting leavened his mother’s.
“I once asked my father what were the things that he was most proud of, and he said the thing he was most proud of was that he fought in five wars in Israel. Always in the infantry, always in the front line — and that he never hurt anybody.”
When it came time for Keret to fulfill his obligatory military service, it turned out he was not going to have to choose whether or not to fire a gun. Asthmatic from a young age, Keret avoided the front lines in Lebanon. He entered the army with two close friends, both computer whizzes. “We were like the Three Musketeers,” Keret remembers.
Both of them worked in an underground computer lab. They managed to convince a colonel that Keret was a genius with computers, too, so he could get the same cushy overnight solo gig, tending the machines. It worked, and “whenever there was a problem to solve I would call them,” Keret says. “They would come fix it.”
Life in the army was clearly much harder on one of the friends than it was on Keret. The young man became depressed and began to talk about killing himself. Keret tried to talk him out of it, and when it became clear he wasn’t winning the argument, he and their other friend had the young man forcibly committed.
Weeks later, the young man was released and given his rifle back. Keret was worried and approached the army psychologist with his concerns. The doctor told Keret to mind his own business. But Keret wasn’t going to let the matter drop. “It was just before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement,” he recalls, “and [my friend] was supposed to do his first guard duty there, and I volunteered to do it with him. So we met [in the computer room] first and he asked me to bring him something, and by the time I got back he had shot himself. . . . It took him a few days to die.”
Keret went back to the psychologist in a rage for an evaluation: the army was worried Keret would have been damaged by what he had seen. Keret shouted and railed at the doctor, who sat there silently. Keret remembers saying to him: ‘If you have one inch of soul in your empty brain, how can you sit here like you know anything?’ ”
Rather than punishing Keret for the outburst, the doctors pronounced him fit to go back to his post and assigned him a forty-eight-hour shift alone in the same computer room where his friend had just killed himself.
“When you are in those shifts there is no Internet, no TV, no nothing,” Keret says now. “You’re just in a room, a tiny room, you have a phone, no windows. I remember I had the sensation when I walked on the floor my feet were kind of sticky and I thought that it was sticky with his blood, and the bullet was still stuck there in the cabinet — they were unable to take it out — and I kind of said to myself, I don’t know how I’m going to make it.
“How can I stay in this room for forty hours now? I didn’t know what to do. I felt like — well, so I sat down and I wrote ‘Pipelines,’ I wrote my first story.”
In “Seven Years Later,” Keret describes emerging from this night watch and walking over in the morning light to his brother’s apartment to show the short story to him. It’s a sweet and moving vignette, but it doesn’t describe or mention the death of Keret’s friend. I ask Keret why he left it out here and in “The Nimrod Flipout,” his later short story of three friends in the army in which one suffers a breakdown. Keret’s answer says a lot about how he conceives of stories.
“I kind of felt that I — when you write something you want to write it so you can pretend that is the way that it was, and that if I would want to write it truly the way that it was, I couldn’t write it because it wouldn’t have worked.”
This was in 1986, and Keret has been writing stories ever since. Pipelines, his debut collection, was first published in Hebrew in 1992 and more or less ignored, but with Missing Kissinger, a book of fifty short stories, he broke through. Tales of love and heartache and strange happenings, they read like stories Kurt Vonnegut might have written if he were born in Israel in the 1960s. One of the stories in the collection is now used on the Israeli matriculation exam.
Mira Rashty, a journalist and editor of the Hebrew edition of Granta magazine, says Keret’s work was a breath of fresh air — stylistically and politically — in Israel in the late 1990s.
“He was the first writer who wrote about personal and everyday situations using a everyday Hebrew and incorporating slang into his writing,” Rashty says. “Unlike some of his predecessors, he has been an inspiration for new writers to leave the traditional Zionist themes and practices of writing.
“It is not that he doesn’t deal with the national and political issues, it is the way he does it. Using literature and mainly the art of words in order to reflect human situations whether they are personal, social or national. His stories are sharp, slim and concrete with an extreme humanity to them.”
The length of Keret’s stories and the simplicity of his prose also make them highly translatable. In the past two decades, as one book of stories has turned into five and Keret has also begun working in the comic book form as well, his work has been ferried into nearly forty different languages.
The novelist and short story writer Nathan Englander has been one of Keret’s many translators. “Etgar has a really special gift for processing gigantical ideas,” Englander says, “compressing them into relatable, processable, empathizable short-short stories.”
He adds: “I personally love when an artist and his or her work syncs up so sincerely. And with Etgar, his notions of fairness and justice, his ability to see humanity in everyone, and to call things like he sees them, the kindness and weirdness and unbounded imagination of the writing, that is also how he is in real life.”
The novelist Aleksandar Hemon says of Keret, “Reading or listening to him, more than once I thought: I wish it fell to me to tell those stories. He is the exactly opposite of the programmatic tedium of Knausgaard, who spends hundreds of pages and years of life looking for something story-worthy and cannot find anything if his life depended on it. Etgar is the kind of writer who can stare at the wall and imagine a map of the world on it, and people in it, and make them live funny, tragic lives. . . . He like a long-lost brother, and a much better human being than I can ever be.”
Life around Keret does take on a strange whimsical quality. Two decades ago he was at a nightclub in Israel and he saw a woman he knew and said something along the lines that he was going home, had to get up early. She responded by saying, “Kiss me.” Years later he learned she’d actually said, “You’ll never get a taxi.”
Keret and the filmmaker Shira Geffen have been married a long time now, misunderstandings aside, and occasionally work together. He directed Jellyfish, a film based on one of her short stories. The film won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2007. Dozens of adaptations have been made form Keret’s own stories.
Occasionally, his role in the film industry meant he could rope his father into films. “He always kind of had a key role,” Keret says, “so in Jellyfish, the final shot is with my dad. I made this kind of TV drama where he played a homeless guy — he played the guy who says ‘popsicle.’ ”
Keret has spent a lot of time on planes attending the launch of these films and his growing number of books, and Seven Good Years highlights some of the comic and surreal moments of these travels. Shortly after September 11th, trying to get to Holland for a festival, Keret is double-booked on a flight. He refuses to leave and winds up sitting in the jump seat next to a furious flight attendant. In Germany, an audience member asks Keret if he would apologize for what the Jews have done to Europe. Like many Israeli writers, Keret is often reflexively confronted by politically engaged audience members. He’s learned to fire back with a joke.
“I was once in Italy at an event,” Keret says with a dark laugh, “and they said to me, ‘You baby killer, how dare you come here?!’ and David Grossman was there, and I said, ‘No no no, he’s the baby killer. I’m just the bum who writes short stories, he’s the baby killer.’ ”
Occasionally, however, Keret’s travels return a coherence to the world he has inherited from his parents. One of the countries where his work sells the best is Poland, and not long ago he traveled there with his mother, her first trip back in seventy years, to see a house an architect fan built in Keret’s honor. It is in the Guinness World Book of Records as the narrowest house in the world.
Keret puts his arms out to the side and shows me how you can literally climb the Keret house, as it is called, from the inside by putting your hands onto the opposing walls. It’s a miraculous thing, something you’d have a hard time believing existed if it were in, say, a short story by a surrealist writer. But it’s not an exaggeration. Keret then tells me a story about a woman he met who was able to tell him exactly where the house was, even though much of the neighborhood around it has changed. And the reason was because during the Nazi occupation, she would bide her time under arrest by memorizing the facades and windows and roof treatments of all the homes on the same block.
When Keret’s mother thought about giving up during the Holocaust, her father said to her, “You must survive, because what these people want is to erase our existence from the history of the earth. So you have to survive to prove them wrong.” She did, and she passed this will to live on to her son, who has transformed it into his fiction, something magical and strange, and kind.
As we speak, Keret is off to prepare for a reading he will give tonight in the basement of a New York apartment building where he is renting a flat at a discounted rate, so long as he agreed to give a reading in Hebrew with the owner’s tuba band. I ask him later how it went and he writes, “The building’s super stood at the entrance wearing a sweatshirt with the word ‘Security’ printed on its back, but since the eighty people in the audience were mostly people living in the building they didn’t buy it. The audience loved it and the French horn guy was super happy, but he got hospitalized the next day with some heart problem. His girlfriend has asked me to call him to improve his mood. He isn’t in danger or anything.” As in many Etgar Keret stories, the strangeness of this one makes its final note — of human fragility and resilience — all the more resonant.