12 Questions for Israeli Writer Etgar Keret

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The novelist Etgar Keret spoke to "Newsweek" about his new memoir and whether he will stay in Israel. Yanai Yechiel

Nearly a decade ago, on the day Etgar Keret's son was born, a Palestinian militant blew himself up at the entrance to a mall north of Tel Aviv, killing five people. The bombing occurred shortly after Keret's wife went into labor. So at the hospital, the excitement of his son's birth fused with the tragedy. He watched as medics wheeled the victims by on gurneys.

Keret is Israel's most celebrated short story writer, a skilled raconteur with an eye for the absurdities of everyday life and a face that's familiar to many in this nation of roughly 8 million. So when a journalist spotted him at the hospital, he hoped for a quote that would make his story. That Keret was there for something else altogether—that he was not a victim of the attack—came as a disappointment. "A reaction from a writer would've been good for my article. Someone original, someone with a little vision," the journalist told him. "After every attack, I always get the same reactions: 'Suddenly I heard a boom,' 'I don't know what happened,' 'Everything was covered in blood.' How much of that can you take?"

The account opens Keret's latest book, The Seven Good Years, a memoir published by Riverhead Books about the period from his son's birth to his father's death. It's his first work of nonfiction after five short-story collections, and like Keret's fiction, the book brims with intelligence and charm. Its carefully observed vignettes focus on Keret's personal life—fatherhood, family and occasional run-ins with taxi drivers. But they also touch on the broader dramas of Israel, including what he describes as his country's "spiraling descent" over the past 10 years.

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Riverhead Books

At a café in Tel Aviv, Keret spoke to Newsweek about his new memoir and whether he will stay in Israel.

What prompted you to write nonfiction and how was it different from the craft of making up stories?

When I write fiction, the thing that motivates me most is my own desire to know what's going to happen with the characters. But when you write nonfiction, you know what's going to happen. That's the main difference. Writing fiction is like going out on an adventure. Writing nonfiction involves describing an adventure you've already had.

So in your fiction, you don't plot out the narrative in advance? You don't know how it will unfold?

Right. And when I started writing this nonfiction book, I had to invent all kinds of reasons for writing. I said to myself that I'm writing so that my son can read it when he grows up or so that I can document a piece of my relationship with my father so that I can revisit it. But after some time I realized that the kind of curiosity I have about fiction also exists in nonfiction. Because it's only when you write down what happened that you begin to realize what was important in that moment.

You mean it's a way of understanding something about your experience.

I'm very reflective about my present but instinctively I give no thought to my past. When something happens I ask myself tons of questions about it but then once it's over I never revisit it. And in writing about things that really happened, it helped me kind of extract their essence.

Your short stories were groundbreaking when they began appearing in print in the early 1990s in part because they didn't reflect Israel's big national narrative the way the books of older writers did. The characters were caught in their own smaller dramas. That became your trademark. But this book does grapple with the Israeli condition. I suppose reality has its own way of imposing itself?

Some of my fiction, maybe not most of it, deals with very specific political issues, like the assassination of [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin or the occupied territories. But in general, you're right. Much of it does not. For me both nonfiction and fiction deal with sincerity. Writing is a realm where you have to be honest. The difference is that in fiction, the emotions you admit are devoid of any outside context. So I think that many times you can read them as non-political because they're not contextualized. But I think that so many of my stories deal with violence, fear of indifference, a group trying to pressure an individual to deal with something that is immoral. Maybe they're not political but they're kind of a dissection of the dilemmas we have to deal with by living here. Sometimes the distinction between political and apolitical seems arbitrary.

You titled your book The Seven Good Years. Were these good years for Israel?

I think that during this period, there was this feeling of circular motion, as if we keep returning to the same place. But it's not circular, it's a spiraling descent. Your revisit the same events—another Gaza war and another Gaza war. But each new one is worse than the previous one…. I think we all had a feeling we were marching in place but actually we were moving backwards.

You refer to your brother and sister in the book—both ended up turning away from the society in which they grew up. Your sister became ultra-Orthodox and your brother kind of dropped out. He became an anarchist and now lives in a little town in Thailand, off the grid. Is there something in the way they were raised that accounts for this?

I can offer a narrative that maybe they won't agree with. But both of them were very disappointed by the default option that was suggested to them…. My brother once said he and my sister aren't that different. Neither of them acknowledges the governing system in Israel. Both feel the prime minister doesn't represent them…. My sister lives in a kind of Diaspora. She doesn't vote in the elections. She doesn't feel that the system reflects her needs or values.

And yet, you've made this supreme effort to sustain the relationship with your sister, even as she moved farther and farther away from your world in secular Tel Aviv. How hard has that been?

My sister used to live in the settlement Emanuel and I had many political arguments when I visited her and I'm happy for those arguments. I don't think anyone would be better off if I just refused to visit my sister. Intuitively, I always believe that seeing someone and trying to humanize them and make them humanize me is best. It's not about changing your opinion but just accepting that this is another human being who disagrees with you.

So, then, how do you feel about the decision by some artists not to perform in settlements in the West Bank?

I support them but I'm not willing to boycott settlements myself…. Sometimes I think the cultural boycott is like looking for the coin under the lamp post. People do that because, to be honest, there's nothing easier than boycotting. Boycotting is basically saying I'm going to sit on my ass and do nothing.

Both you and your wife, who is also a writer, spoke out against the Gaza war last summer. What was the reaction in Israel? Did you get support? Criticism?

When people say, "We wish you and your son would die," or open a discussion group on Facebook in which they talk about what would be the most appropriate way to murder your wife, there's nothing pleasant about that. People offered to throw my son over Gaza without a parachute, things like that…. But this is basically the price you have to pay if you want to affect the society you're living in. On the other hand, some people came to me and talked to me as if I was some kind of cleric, saying, "You're such a brave man." And I must say that although those people were nice, the feeling was also unpleasant because in both situations I felt dehumanized. You feel like you're turned into a symbol and you stop being a person.

Did you consider leaving Israel?

I think thoughts about leaving Israel are like thoughts about going to the gym. They are these recurring thoughts but deep inside I realize they won't happen. My parents are Holocaust survivors and for them coming to Israel was really their greatest achievement.

They viewed it that way?

I think they felt that having a family was their greatest achievement but having it in Israel was their second greatest achievement…. For them, Israel represented two things: First of all that it would be a safe place for Jews. And second that it would be a place where you could always speak your mind without living in fear. I must say that those two axioms might be in doubt right now because, you know, Israel might be the least safe place for Jews nowadays, at least statistically. More Jews die here than other places. And also, during the last war, there are those who showed me it's not always safe to speak your mind.

And yet, you said earlier in the conversation that you're an interminable optimist. How do you explain that?

I've seen opinions change so much and so dramatically over the years. I saw people advocating wars and then criticizing them and advocating the Oslo agreement and later attacking it…. I have this hubris that I think if I could get each and every person in this country in a room and talk to them for a few hours, then—I'm not saying they would think what I'm thinking, but maybe I can make them see reality in a new kind of way.

12 Questions for Israeli Writer Etgar Keret | World