Knocking on Etgar Keret’s door

The genius short story writer denies that he is ‘the voice of Israel.’

Etgar Keret (photo credit: Laurens Samsom)
Etgar Keret
(photo credit: Laurens Samsom)
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 unshaven face.
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.”
Already a 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.
Keret has 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?
Well, 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.
My 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.
When 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 me.
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.
There’s something 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 it.
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.
There’s 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.
When I 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 way.
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 every level.
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 lives.
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 left-wing poligarchs.
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 Jewish writer?
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 identity.
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 more.
Another thing that connects me to the Jewish tradition is that my writing is funny. Israeli writers are wonderful, but they’re not funny.
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 me.
Everybody wants me to write a novel – my agent, the publisher, my bank manager.
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 someone.
If I do that, I may cause discomfort or cause myself discomfort.
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.
The bottom 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.