The day before he was due to speak at a session of the International Writers
Festival in Jerusalem last week, Etgar Keret is sipping coffee on the terrace of
his favorite neighborhood café in Tel Aviv.
Amid the well-scrubbed,
upscale clientele around him diving into their healthy-looking salads, Keret is
a downtown anomaly – sporting a simple button-down, scraggly hair and an
Unlike in his short stories, where diners are mistaken for
other people, girlfriends are finding zippers under their boyfriend’s tongues
and nasty brutes are being reincarnated as Winnie-the-Pooh, nothing untoward is
occurring around him. Either his fellow café patrons are too Tel Aviv cool to
acknowledge him, or they’re unaware that one of Israel’s best-selling authors –
someone described as “a genius” by The New York Times
, and by Salman Rushdie as
“a brilliant writer” – is sitting in their midst.
That’s a relief for the
44-year-old Keret, who would rather be part of the scenery than the center of
attention – a goal that’s getting more difficult to accomplish as his name
increasingly gets bandied about as “the new voice of Israel.”
best-seller in Hebrew, his latest collection of short stories, Suddenly, A Knock
At the Door, has been translated into English and other languages and is a
rising international favorite. And the term “an Etgar Keret type of story” –
used to describe his dreamy, absurd, often hilarious and usually touching
exercises in creativity – has entered the literary lexicon.
also solidified his position as an eloquent voice of liberal, humanistic Israel,
in an era in which the political extremities appear to have the loudest voices.
But unlike the echelon of fabled Israeli authors like Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld,
David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua, who write explicitly about Israel – its
politics, the Holocaust and Jewish history – Keret prefers subtle touches to
master strokes, focusing in with a magnifying glass on a particular life or
sequence of events. Whether it’s tackling themes of identity, connection or
alienation, Keret’s sharp eyes and mind have masterfully captured what he
describes as “the complexities and ambiguities” of the human
condition.Your father, a Holocaust survivor, recently died. You wrote
some beautiful columns about him and your relationship. Has it been a difficult
period for you and how much of an influence was he on your life and work?
since he died, writing or work at all seems more trivial. I hope I will be able
to get back to writing soon.
My father and I were very close. When he got
sick, I canceled trips for work I had planned to Australia and Mexico so I could
be with him.
The thing about my father was that he was proud of myself,
my brother and sister, but not for the usual reasons.
When we were kids,
I used to ask him, “what would you want me to be when I’m grown up?” And [he]
said, “if in 30 years, you have a beautiful house and wife and you’re a doctor,
and that’s it, I’d be very disappointed.” Both my parents were Holocaust
survivors, and had to be on their own and responsible for others at a very early
age... so bringing home bread and finding a warm place to stay were the
essential things that led them for most of their lives. When they raised us,
they didn’t want us to be richer than them, they wanted us to be able to
dedicate our lives to something that’s not necessarily materialistic.
brother is a very radical social activist – he started the “legalize marijuana”
movement in Israel and is a member of a group called Anarchists Against the War.
My sister is ultra-Orthodox, with 11 children and eight grandchildren and she
used to live in the West Bank. Many people say how come you all went in very
different directions? But in a sense, my sister, through religion, my brother
through social activism and me through art, have tried to be consistent with our
parents’ vision of transcending our material existence.You do a fair
share of non-fiction writing on political and social issues – what kind of
guidelines do you follow?
Despite what some people think, I do write about
politics – in my own weird way, so it’s not like I live on another planet. But I
do feel that when I write about real issues, it’s important to keep hold of that
thing I have in my fiction – some kind of complexity and ambiguity.
I write about social or political issues, it’s important that I don’t demonize
anybody in the process. I remember one time I was walking back from the Tel Aviv
port with friends after dinner and I saw this big guy who seemed like a typical
settler – religious with a beard and pistol in a holster running toward
When he got to me, he was sweating and out of breath, and asked “Are
you Etgar Keret? I want to shake your hand.” Then he said, “I’ve read every word
you’ve ever written and I don’t agree with any of it.” So why did you run to
shake my hand, I asked?
“Because I feel like you respect me,” he answered.
about this that’s kind of telling and shows that when you engage in political
dialogue, you need to assume the responsibility of trying to understand why
others don’t think like you.
For me, that’s very easy – I have an
anti-Zionist brother and an ex-settler sister, and all our lives, we’ve existed
in great harmony. When we would go to spend Shabbat with my sister in Emmanuel,
my brother would say that it was the only times he’d go beyond the 1967 borders
without returning handcuffed in a police car.
The fact that they had
nothing in common politically didn’t change the fact that my brother and sister
were happy that each other existed and that their existence helped to make the
world a better place.
I’ll tell you a story – it’s long but I’ll make it
short. I had written this story called “My Good Shirt.” I bought this nice
orange shirt in The Gap in Chicago a long time ago, and always considered it my
good shirt – I’d wear it to events or TV interviews. I was told I looked good in
During the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, I kept on wearing the shirt
when I had to dress up, and my wife [filmmaker Shira Geffen] started saying that
it looks like I was against disengagement and I should stop wearing the shirt. I
talked to this greengrocer on Dizengoff, who said I must keep wearing it because
if I stop wearing that orange shirt, he’ll have to stop selling carrots, and a
greengrocer can’t make a living without selling carrots.
something about the fact that we live in a country where you can’t open your
closet and pick out a shirt without having to take into consideration the
political climate and the dichotomy that exists in our society.
want to write about reality here, I try the Socratic form of not trying to tell
people what they should do or think, but to make them feel less convinced of
their own beliefs. If there’s a way to be both critical and empathetic, I think
that’s the best way to present your ideas.Does it bother you when you’re
called ‘the voice of secular Israel?’
I don’t get upset, but I don’t think it’s
true. We live in a period now where it’s difficult to find a common denominator
that binds us. Is secular Israel a Beitar Jerusalem fan who hates Arabs, or a
gay left-winger that goes to social protest rallies or an Arab living in Taibe?
Back in the Amos Oz generation, there was something more unifying in society –
even if you had differences, people had a very strong feeling that they had
something in common. The social protests have provided some unity, but I think
that the feeling of being disappointed by our system of government may be the
only thing that most of us have in common anymore.
When I look at what’s
happening now, regardless of right- and left-wing issues, I can’t help feel that
it’s become a situation of the tail wagging the dog. Look at the case of [the]
Ulpana [neighborhood of Beit El]. I really feel that not only the majority of
Israelis – but the majority of Likud voters – would think that it’s wrong to go
against a Supreme Court decision, and to do something that’s immoral and not
smart on a global scale.
But Netanyahu is dealing with the issue as if he
has to appease a huge majority who are demanding the solution to be a certain
The whole effort goes in the direction of basically dealing with the
wishes of an extremely small group of people – a group that is scarier to
Netanyahu than even Barack Obama is.
This anomaly exists in Israel on
You really feel that the more a group is extreme, lawless
and anti-democratic, the more influential it is in Israeli politics and in our
Now you have a 75 percent right-wing coalition dominating our
government. The leftwing parties are the smallest ever – Meretz is irrelevant.
But there’s a feeling you get from the Right that the country is run by
While it’s true that many left-wingers pay taxes
and go to reserves, our effect on the political system is close to zero – we’re
just visitors here, we don’t own the country.
So I’m wondering when this
kind of paranoia and feeling of inferiority from the Right will end – when the
coalition is 120 MKs? Do you feel that you’re more of an Israeli writer or a
I feel that my writing is much easier to place in the Jewish
tradition than the Israeli tradition.
What I have in common with Jewish
American writers is that the issue that interests us most is
The traditional Israeli issues deal with the conflict and maybe
national narrative, while the traditional Jewish themes are “Who am I?,” “What
does it mean to be Jewish, especially if I’m secular?” and “What is my
connection to the society I live in?” Those questions always concerned me
Another thing that connects me to the Jewish tradition is that my
writing is funny. Israeli writers are wonderful, but they’re not
Usually being funny is a second choice anyway.
You try to
achieve something with your writing but if you can’t, at least you’re funny.
That’s a Jewish tradition too – if you can’t affect the country you’re in by
being in government, then you can affect it by satirizing it.
I once said
that I was a Jew in the diaspora of Israel. It’s part of my character that if
there’s more than two people in a room, I’m in the minority. I always feel like
I’m the guy who thinks differently, and there’s something about my identity that
I never feel extremely comfortable with. Even when I fill out the immigration
form at the airport and write my profession, I put “lecturer.” It’s difficult to
see myself as a writer.The opening story in Suddenly, A Knock At the
Door deals with intruders disrupting a writer at home. How do you handle the
celebrity factor of being an increasingly famous author?
I was lucky because I
was successful in Israel at a young age. When [my first short story collection]
Missing Kissinger came out, I was 26, and at the time I was already writing for
The Cameri Quintet show. So I already began to deal with the celeb status almost
20 years ago.
There’s something disorienting about it, but you only have
to go through it once no matter how much of a bigger scale it gets. The idea
that people stop you in the street, or that people like or dislike you with even
knowing you, takes some time to get used to.
You have to be able to
define yourself and also define where your private life ends and where your
social image begins – and understanding that they’re not the same. I remember
once having an argument with a stranger in a restaurant and he said, “I can’t
believe you’re shouting and so angry – I read all your stories and you seem so
nice.” First of all, I don’t think I appear to be so nice in my stories, but
it’s nice to think somebody else does. But this realization that people see you
as being different than what you are is something you just have to digest and
move on from.Do you feel like you’ve become pigeonholed as a quirky
short-story writer? Do you have that great novel inside you?
I read some reviews
of Suddenly, A Knock At the Door that tried to explain why I don’t write novels,
saying that I basically never evolved enough having done so well in short
stories that I stagnated, corrupted by all the riches around
Everybody wants me to write a novel – my agent, the publisher, my
I feel that I could write a novel, but I wouldn’t be able
to write it from the same place I write my stories. There’s something about
fiction that has a function in my life and which dictates the type of stuff I
write, and if I wrote a novel, I wouldn’t be able to commit to the kinds of
things that exist in my stories.
My novel wouldn’t represent me the way
the stories do. The place they represent is a place of honesty. In real life,
there are consequences if I feel like being rude to someone or kissing
If I do that, I may cause discomfort or cause myself
My wife asked me why in the latest collection there are so
many stories about husbands who cheat on their wives. I said to her, “would you
prefer that I write about loyal husbands and cheat on you?” My stories are the
place I can explore and just be. Writing this kind of fiction is very much like
dreaming – you let your unconscious go. And I can’t write a novel like that,
because of the way it must be constructed and rationalized.
line is I love this experience of just being within the realm of short-story
fiction, and it’s difficult to give up. Whatever else is going to happen, this
is something I’ll keep.