A Polish Writer in Exile: An Interview with Etgar Keret

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
img_etgarkeretAt New Zealand Festival Writers Week, the Israeli short fiction writer opens up about his first foray into narrative non-fiction, The Seven Good Years.

After surviving the Holocaust, Etgar Keret’s father decided that one life wasn’t enough; he wanted to live many lives. He would change his profession every seven years, says Keret, “often doing stuff he was horrible at.” Even though this meant Keret’s childhood was at times unstable, he credits his father with teaching him never to succumb to the forces of inertia. Like his father, Keret has juggled multiple career paths, having written short stories, plays, graphic novels, comedy sketches, op-eds, screenplays, dance theatre, lyrics for Israeli rock stars, and most recently, a memoir called The Seven Good Years.

The memoir is a collection of personal essays that chronicle the seven years between his son’s birth and his father’s death. The stories deal with loss, danger, and impending doom, yet are infused with the playfulness and dark humour characteristic of his magic realist fiction. In one essay, Bombs Away, Keret and his wife—Israeli actress and director Shira Geffen—use the threat of nuclear annihilation to justify impulse buying and a hiatus on housework.

“You can be funny when you’re sad, you can be funny when you’re bored, you can be funny when you’re broke,” explains Keret. “I like to compare the function of humour in my life to an airbag in a car—it presents itself when I’m in need. When things are good, I have no urge to be funny. There is something about humour, [it’s] almost like you’re trying to transcend something. It’s as if you cannot find your place in reality so you try to create some kind of portal.”

He inherited his funny side from his parents, both of whom had playful personalities despite their traumatic upbringings. His mother was orphaned after seeing her family murdered in the Warsaw ghetto. His father spent almost two years hiding from the Nazis in a tiny hole in the ground; there wasn’t enough room to stand up and by the time help arrived his muscles had atrophied. “I think that there is something about them that kind of remained childlike. They never had the stage of being a teenager and rebelling against their parents—they were too busy surviving. It was great fun to be with them as a child because they never gave up on being children.”

“They were not hippies, but they always had this sense of freedom.” His mother would excuse him and his two siblings from school on rainy days. “They don’t teach you anything worth getting wet for,” he recalls her saying. When Keret’s activist brother founded Israel’s legalise marijuana movement, his father agreed to try his first joint. A boyish grin beams across his face as he retells the story. “We smoked it together, and my father was over 70 at the time. Afterwards he said, ‘it’s not half as good as whisky, but it really seems very stupid that people want it to be illegal’.” The next day, the elderly man stuck anti-prohibition stickers to bus stops.

Their whimsical parenting style rubbed off on him, and several essays in The Seven Good Years are about strange interactions between him and his own son. Keret, who is well known in Israel, was wary about forcing his son into the spotlight like this and decided to only publish his memoir overseas in translation.

Keret’s wife is the daughter of Yehonatan Geffen—Israel’s most famous children’s book writer. Much of his writing revolved around her and she hated it when prying teachers and classmates asked questions about her personal life. They didn’t want to make the same mistake with their son, “so I came up with this idea to publish it overseas. It was either that or not publishing it at all.”

“When you’re in a realty in which you’re not 100 percent trustful of the world around you, everything you say about yourself and your family becomes something that can be used against you. I’ve been too spoiled by fiction, where you can write about the most sincere emotions, but because those emotions are put in totally different contexts nobody really knows anything about you.”

In 2014, Keret and his family received death threats from radical right-wingers after he wrote a series of op-eds speaking out against the Israel-Gaza conflict, a jarring experience that cemented his decision to only publish his memoir abroad. He was branded as a traitor and slander was spread across social media and talkback radio. The most common lie was that he doesn’t live in Israel, despite having lived in Tel Aviv his entire life. “When you’re in a realty in which you’re not 100 percent trustful of the world around you, everything you say about yourself and your family becomes something that can be used against you. I’ve been too spoiled by fiction, where you can write about the most sincere emotions, but because those emotions are put in totally different contexts nobody really knows anything about you.”

Keret, who is a secular Jew, sees debate as a cornerstone of Judaism. His right-wing dissenters are hypocrites in his eyes for espousing Jewish values while attempting to bully him into silence. “You can’t find even one Jewish hero that wouldn’t argue with anybody, including God. Abraham argued with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah argued with God, Job argued with God, and God would argue back. Jews study the Torah in pairs because you study by disagreeing. It’s amazing how those people who talk about the values of Judaism can’t stand debate or disagreement.”

In his essay Jam, Kerret’s mother tells him, “you are not an Israeli writer at all. You’re a Polish writer in exile.” Poland is home to one of his most avid fan bases outside of Israel and, according to Kerret, Poles find him especially funny. Growing up, his Polish parents never spoke their native language and he wasn’t exposed to a lot of Polish films or literature. “At the same time, the stuff that made my parents laugh was the stuff that made Polish people laugh, because they were Polish. So I think I skipped Polish culture but I connected to some kind of Polish sensibility.”

He enjoys visiting Poland often these days, and describes a strong yet uneasy connection to his parents’ homeland. “Many of my family members died [there] in violent circumstances. There is this kind of tension between this horrible history and the nonchalant feeling you have when you are there.” It’s a discomfort he feels compelled to write about. “I think for a good story, you always need something that will be complex and ambiguous and difficult to explain.”

Regardless of the warm reception he would receive, he can’t imagine moving to Poland. He has always lived within the same three-kilometre radius and has a deeply rooted community life in Tel Aviv. “The apartment building where I live has a What’s App group. Everyday they send me photos of the new cats in the yard.” Once, his son asked if they could move out and find a bigger home. Keret spurned the idea, and asked him if he could list a single apartment within their building where they hadn’t eaten a meal—he couldn’t. “I would only think about leaving if I thought that there was no future there for my son. As long as I have some hope I will never go anywhere.”

The New Zealand Festival for 2016 runs from February 26 to March 20 in Wellington. Writers Week ran from March 8-13.

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