Writer Etgar Keret gave an engaging, poignant and funny interview recently on National Public Radio as he discussed his new memoir, “The Seven Good Years,” telling of the joys and terrors of daily life in Israel as he has lived it.
A critically acclaimed author of six short story collections, Keret spoke frankly with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s popular Fresh Air program, about his new, very personal account of his experiences in the years between the birth of his son in a hospital at the same time terrorist attack victims were being rushed in and the death of his father, a Holocaust survivor whose outlook on life affected Keret’s views, too. The book ends describing a rocket attack in Tel Aviv in which he and his wife and son were piled atop each other on the side of the road, listening to air raid sirens and explosions.
Keret said his father would tell bedtime stories that involved mobsters, prostitutes and drunk people. He found the stories delightful as a child. When, at 5, he asked his father what a prostitute was, he said, “A prostitute is somebody who makes a living by listening to other people’s problems.” When he asked what a drunk person was, his father said, “It’s somebody who has a physical condition that the more liquids he drinks, the happier he becomes.” Keret said he thought that when he grew up, he wanted to be either a “drunk prostitute or a drunk mafia guy.”
When he was older he realized his father’s stories weren’t normal and asked about it. His father told him that he didn’t know any fairy tales and didn’t want to tell him stories from his own childhood because it was so grim. As Polish Jews being hunted by the Nazis, his father’s family hid in a hole in the ground for two years. His sister was captured and tortured to death to find out where they were hiding. Also, Keret’s mother had the same kind of survival story in Poland, overcoming starvation and deprivation.
Keret said his father’s stories had the effect of making him want to be a writer.
“Those stories, for me, were always the model for the function of stories and storytelling in our lives — the idea is that you kind of look reality straight in the face, it doesn’t matter how ugly it is, and you try to find humanity in it, you try to find beauty in it, you try to find hope in it,” Keret said. “So you can’t beautify it, but at the same time, you should find these tiny things that you know that would make sometimes very violent and unhappy occasions still human and emotional.”
One very funny story had to do with Keret bumping into the woman who later became his wife, leaving a restaurant as he was arriving. He’d been attracted to her but hadn’t had a chance to act on his attraction. So when he thought she said to him “Kiss me,” he did. It turned out later, when they were married, he found out she’d actually said, “You’ll never get a taxi.” How that got translated into “Kiss me” makes no sense, since the two phrases sound nothing similar in Hebrew, but he theorizes that because that’s what he wanted her to say, that’s what he heard.
Keret compares the blend of modern words with ancient Hebrew as being like rap music combined with Bible language—it’s an odd juxtaposition, but someone who’d lived in the days of Abraham would still be able to understand it. He mused that Shakespeare, however, wouldn’t be able to follow modern English.
Keret said he always lived life in the moment until the birth of his son, Lev, which made him pine for a stable, comfortable and even predictable future in which violence and war were no longer a part. Once his father was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his tongue, he viewed life as being even more precious with the knowledge that he could lose him soon. His father’s attitude, though, still guides his perspective.
“The fact that he survived the Holocaust always kind of seemed to him that something good had happened to him in life,” Keret said. “And life since the Holocaust always seemed to surprise him for the better, and there was no bitterness in him. He said, “You know what? I’ve been smoking two packs a day since I was 14-years-old for more than 65 years and if after that you get a cancer, it’s a fair deal,” he says. “It’s fair.”
Keret, who is not religious, has a sister who married an Orthodox Jew and practices the strict rules of eating and living that are demanded by that faith. He said he is uncomfortable with the way the Orthodox subjugate women and live separately from the rest of society. He supports the movement to prohibit separate buses for Orthodox men to go to the Wailing Wall, for instance. However, he maintains a relationship with his sister, who is equally critical of his lifestyle, but they keep their views to themselves because they love each other.
Keret said writing the memoir made him decide he prefers to write fiction.
“I don’t think I’ll publish another nonfiction book or even if I will, I don’t think it’s going to happen real soon because when you write fiction, you kind of go out on an adventure,” Keret said. “You have something in your mind, you don’t know what’s going to happen and it’s great fun. When you write nonfiction, you’re retelling an adventure, you’re basically kind of an historian of your own life, which is less fun, you know? I’d rather play football than tell somebody a story about how I once played football.”