Writing to fight the inertia: Etgar Keret finds inspiration in coronavirus

He may be known for sardonic short stories, but Keret reveals in conversation with the ‘Post’ an optimistic outlook and calls the months under COVID-19 ‘one of the most prolific periods’ of his life.

Keret and choreographer Inbal Pinto on the set while filming the video dance inspired by the story ‘Outside.’ (photo credit: LIELLE SAND)
Keret and choreographer Inbal Pinto on the set while filming the video dance inspired by the story ‘Outside.’
(photo credit: LIELLE SAND)
In 1353, the writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio had completed work on what is considered to this day a masterpiece of classic Italian prose. Titled The Decameron, his book was a collection of novellas in which young men and women recounted their tales of survival and hope.
Boccaccio’s fictional group sheltered in a secluded villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which ravaged Europe at the time. One of the most poignant lines delivered in the book goes as follows: “Nothing is so indecent that it cannot be said to another person if the proper words are used to convey it.”
Nearly 700 years later and in the midst of another pandemic gripping the globe, Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret sat down to work on a new short story, titled “Outside.”
The 53-year-old Keret is an internationally published author best known for his acerbic and humoristic short stories. His work often seems to give voice to a narrative many of his local contemporaries usually refrain from sounding, garnering his fiction comparisons to the likes of American satirist writer Kurt Vonnegut. Using what Boccaccio called “the proper words” to convey to his readers the extent of the indecency of their shortcomings, prejudices and nearsightedness, Keret has touched on almost every potentially explosive topic in a free and unapologetic style. Some of the recurring themes in his opus are what he perceives as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, the preoccupation that borders on obsession with the Holocaust, and the tension-laden relationships between parents and their children, who in his writing call out their adult caretakers for twisting the truth for their own benefit.
Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret. (Credit: Yanai YEHIEL)
Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret. (Credit: Yanai YEHIEL)
This time around, Keret produced a somewhat heart-wrenching and surrealistic story in which the first-person narrator is reluctant to leave her home after being shuttered in it for a while during a lockdown. The local authorities in his tale then send military troops to residential neighborhoods, with soldiers banging on doors and urging citizens to return to the streets once more.
Keret’s story was published by The New York Times Magazine this summer alongside 28 other works by acclaimed novelists, such as Canada’s Margaret Atwood and Italy’s Paolo Giordano, as part of “The Decameron Project.’’ The latter is a platform dedicated to literature inspired by the circumstances we have all been plunged into since the outbreak of the coronavirus.
In a recent conversation with The Jerusalem Post, Keret says that he didn’t purposely “try to write the opposite of what other people feel” by dreaming up a protagonist who has learned to accept and even relish her confinement.
“I was really anticipating the end of the lockdown and envisioned myself walking down Dizengoff Street next to where I live in Tel Aviv, seeing and interacting with all the people. When the lockdown ended I went there, and within five minutes I was almost run over by a scooter. Then some guy shouted at me because he thought I was staring at him, people smelled a lot worse than they usually do, and I thought to myself: Wow, this is a mistake. So I ran back home and wrote this story,” he recalls with a laugh.
The world we left behind
Reflecting on the prose put forth by other creators over the past months, Keret expresses resentment for the kind of writing that laments the new reality the pathogen has ushered in.
“I think that this story is my attempt to demystify to myself this kind of fantasy about the world we left behind,” he says. “Many people have this tragic, victim-like narrative that basically says: ‘We were driven away from heaven.’”
For Keret, the intermittent periods spent under curfew were actually an opportunity to tap into the introspective energy that has fed his decades of work. This time, he shares,“got me thinking about my late father, who was a Holocaust survivor. He refused to talk about periods in his life as bad ones. When I was a child, he said to me: ‘For me there are no good or bad periods. There are only easier periods and more difficult ones. I much prefer the easier periods, but I think that in hindsight, the difficult periods were the ones in which I had learned more about myself and about the world.’ And I think that this is also true for COVID-19.”
Keret admits that the past eight months in the shadow of the pandemic have been one of the most prolific periods in his life. Judging by his latest publications, he isn’t wrong to state so. Some of them refer directly to the repercussions of the coronavirus, like the short story “Eating Olives at the End of the World” which was published by The New York Review of Books in April. The story relates an awkward but intimate encounter between the narrator and a supermarket cashier, who begs him for a hug as an alternative payment for a jar of olives.
Israeli dancer Moran Muller on the set during the filming of Outside (Credit: Lielle Sand)
Israeli dancer Moran Muller on the set during the filming of Outside (Credit: Lielle Sand)
How does he explain this robust activity when most of us have been dejectedly binge-watching Netflix at home? “In normal periods, I think that 90% of what we do is out of the force of inertia, but something about COVID flushes that out. There is something about the world being put to a stop that makes you ask yourself: ‘OK, what am I going to do now? What am I feeling now? What do I want now?’ At times like these, it’s much easier for me to connect to all of my emotions – my fears, dreams and wishes – and write about them, because all of those automatic actions that I usually do have been taken out of the equation.”
While several projects he has been working on were canceled and “it’s much tougher to make a living,” the author insists on maintaining a positive outlook. “It has given me a perspective of my life that is a bit like the perspective you get when you move apartments. Moving is the thing I hate the most, but when I move I find junk that has been with me for so long and finally get rid of it. It’s similar with COVID, in the sense that it frees our lives. It offers us a choice: When we return, we can choose not to bring back everything we had.”
The video dance was also screened at New York City's Times Square. (Credit: Courtesy of ZAZ10TS)
The video dance was also screened at New York City's Times Square. (Credit: Courtesy of ZAZ10TS)
One thing Keret is keen to see gone, or at least shaken up, is Israel’s current leadership. A liberal who has published numerous op-eds and essays in the past about the country’s political affairs, he is unhesitant to state that he has actively participated in the anti-government protests that have roiled Israel for over three months now.
“The question is whether a prime minister who is to go on trial for criminal offenses should be representing the country. To me it seems a very simple question,” Keret says of what has been described by some as a conflict of interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he continues to preside over the country after he was indicted for breach of trust, bribery and fraud.
“If he loves the country as much as he claims to, Netanyahu should pass the baton to someone else. I think that the fact that has not stepped down yet shows that his personal interests are as important to him, if not more, than the well-being of the country.”
Translating words into movements
Lockdown didn’t just trigger an unexpected bout of creation for the author. It also inspired him to join forces with a creator from an entirely different field – Israeli choreographer Inbal Pinto, who established the Inbal Pinto Dance Company and was its creative director until 2018. An esteemed dancer, director and set designer, Pinto is best known in Israel and abroad for successful dance-theater creations like “Oyster” and “Fugue” that call attention to her signature movement language.
Together, they created a dance video inspired by Keret’s short story “Outside,” which depicts a dancer in a claustrophobic interior space beset by turmoil.
The Japanese-Israeli low-budget production was filmed entirely indoors both in Israel and in Japan. It was initiated by Arieh Rosen, the Israeli cultural attaché to Japan, and supported by the Foreign Ministry. It features the Japanese actor and dancer Mirai Moriyama, who is seen dancing and reading aloud lines from Keret’s story while confined to an antiquated television screen observed by Israeli dancer Moran Muller, as she jolts and twirls in confusion and panic.
The joint work, Keret explains, “was a dialogue between someone who is a storyteller and someone who is a choreographer, so for her [Pinto], the prime interest is not telling a story but, rather, expressing emotion in movement. Our mission was to find a middle ground, a kind of hybrid language in which both of us can express ourselves.”
Keret and Pinto's video dance screened at Tel Aviv's Habima Square. (Credit: Rafi DELOUYA)
Keret and Pinto's video dance screened at Tel Aviv's Habima Square. (Credit: Rafi DELOUYA)
One of the most resonant lines in Keret’s short story highlights a moment in which his protagonist was incidentally touched, activating a sharp and sad realization: “A hundred twenty days have passed since someone last touched you.”
When Keret is told that the sentiment was conveyed convincingly in the film, he enthuses that this was the very feeling at the core of the project: “The project had to be connected to Japan because it was initiated by the Israeli Embassy in Japan. But very quickly I realized that it’s a story about human interaction and the human need for companionship, despite some kind of inherent alienation between people.”
The connection between the characters portrayed by Muller and Moriyama “is based on what they share, which is loneliness or, rather, aloneness, as well as a sensation of confinement. They are trying to spiritually or emotionally connect,” he reflects on the motivation behind the dance adaptation of his story. “And they’re doing it against all odds, because they don’t totally understand each other.”
Perhaps this interpretation is key to understanding the underlying force at the heart of Keret’s own writing: An attempt to transcend the aloneness and, for a moment, empathize and be understood.
The short film Outside can be viewed online at https://outside-film.com