Etgar Keret: ‘Israelis boycott me as a traitor, and foreigners because I’m Israeli’
The title of the Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s new collection of essays, , comes from the biblical story of the Pharaoh’s dream. One night, the Pharaoh has a vision of seven fat-fleshed cows and seven lean and ugly cows standing by a river. Joseph, who is called on for an interpretation, explains that seven years of abundance are coming to Egypt, followed by seven years of famine. “The seven good years were the years in which I was able to be both son to my father and father to my son,” explains Keret. “It was a time at which I could look back and see my past, and look forward and see my future. That may be something trivial for most people, but for my parents, coming from this black hole of the Holocaust, that sense of continuation was a desire or fantasy, and I guess that was projected on to me.”
The man whose zany, inventive short stories once earned him a reputation as the enfant terrible of Israeli fiction is now 47, and has the lightly grizzled look of middle age. He is also more serious than one might expect from his writing. But then, The Seven Good Years feels very much like the work of a writer coming to maturity. It begins with the birth of his son Lev in a hospital outside Tel Aviv – his wife’s contractions slow down when all the nurses are called away to deal with the aftermath of a terrorist attack – and ends just after the death of his father from cancer. Is he counting on seven bad years now? “Not bad, I hope, but slightly more difficult ones. Not last summer’s war, but the war before that was the first one I went through being a parent and not having my father around, and it felt like a different experience. It was as if I’d been moved to the frontline – the bodyguard who had always cushioned everything was not there any more.”
War has been the backdrop to Keret’s life, just as it was for his parents, both of whom survived the Holocaust, his father by living for almost 600 days in a “hole in the ground” outside a village in Poland. How did their experiences affect his childhood? “My childhood was not standard. Many things my parents did, I do not implement with my own child. They were always happy if I didn’t go to school, for instance, because it was safer to be at home than in a public place.” Having had to focus on survival themselves, they wanted their children to aim for richer lives, spiritually rather than materially. “My father said to me, if in 30 years’ time you are living in a big house, with a beautiful wife, and that’s all, I will be very disappointed.”
He needn’t have worried: Keret and his brother and sister, to whom he devotes an essay each in the collection, are all idealists, albeit in very different ways. His brother is an anarchist activist who campaigns against biometric IDs from his adopted home in Thailand; his sister is an ultra-Orthodox mother of 11, who at one point lived in a settlement. Despite their contrasting life choices, the three siblings apparently remain close (though one senses that the words in the essay “My Lamented Sister” are chosen particularly carefully).
Keret himself wrote his first short story while serving in the Israeli military, and the comic, self-deprecating style of The Seven Good Years is infused with the melancholy knowledge that conflict is likely to be a constant for Lev, too. War in these essays isn’t dramatic or heroic, but something akin to rain in the British summertime, just a miserable backdrop against which the rest of life is played out. Conversations with other parents at the playground veer from potty training to whether or not their toddlers will serve in the army; Keret persuades Lev to lie down during a rocket attack by inventing a game called “pastrami sandwich”. He and his wife respond to the seemingly imminent threat of an Iranian nuclear attack by taking out a loan to buy a flat-screen TV and putting off calling the plumber.
While Keret’s short-story collections and were compulsory reading for a generation of Israeli backpackers, this book is aimed squarely at overseas readers. There are no plans to publish it in Hebrew, or in Israel. This is partly because of the personal nature of the essays. “I’m very comfortable with fiction, because no matter how honest you are, you don’t feel exposed. These essays felt like stories that you feel comfortable telling a stranger on a train, but you wouldn’t want to tell your friends and neighbours.” Keret relates his move into non-fiction to becoming a parent. “I wrote my first non-fiction piece on the day my son was born, and at first I couldn’t work out why this was happening. I realised that if fiction is an exercise in ultimate freedom, non-fiction is about reflecting on my life and the way I act. Becoming a parent you go into a different mode: you realise that your actions have consequences and that you should be held accountable for the things you do.”
But there is another reason why The Seven Good Years will not be published in his home country: through the deceptively casual, light-hearted writing runs an urgent desire to communicate the Israeli reality to an outside world that insists on seeing everything about the nation and its people through the prism of ideology. “I feel fortunate to spend a lot of time overseas, to get perspectives on the situation that I live in, and to see that it’s not that normal,” he says. “If I talk about going to a maternity ward with my wife and all the medics are with people from a bombing, for an Israeli person that is so normal that it hardly merits any attention.”
Keret is clearly infuriated with the position he finds himself in as a prominent liberal leftwing Israeli – he regularly writes opinion pieces on the conflict for both the Israeli and the international press – who is increasingly damned both by his nation, and by its international critics. “I find myself being caught between a rock and a very hard place. During last summer’s war I was in Israel, writing against the government, writing against the Gaza war, receiving death threats for me and my wife and my child, and whenever I would travel overseas I would go to places where people would say I’m a baby killer, I have blood on my hands. In people would boycott me saying I’m a traitor, and overseas people would boycott me because I’m Israeli.”
Keret says people tend to equate individual Israelis with their state, without pausing to find out what their views might be. “When people say to me, we wouldn’t want to do an event with you because you are Israeli, I say, ‘you say that as a British person whose nation bombed Iraq, a country you have no border with.’” He has come to the conclusion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has “symbolic power”, representing something more than the sum of its parts: outsiders find something reassuring in seeing it as a Star Wars scenario with clear-cut goodies and baddies, and resist the idea that the reality might be more complex. “Although I sympathise with the Palestinians’ fight, I can’t say I’m pro-Palestinian. I’m not pro-Hamas, pro-gay persecution, pro-terrorist attack. The moment you [come down unequivocally as pro-Palestinian] you patronise them – it’s like saying they don’t deserve the ambiguity that we extend to other people.”
The ultimate expression of this mistaken attitude, for Keret, is the drive towards an intellectual or cultural boycott of Israel, such as the one signed up to by writers including and earlier this year. He argues passionately that a boycott plays straight into the hands of the Israeli right wing. “The rightwing narrative constantly says that the outside world all hate us, they don’t want any dialogue with us, because they are all closet antisemites. If you ask any Israeli rightwinger, they are all for an intellectual boycott.” He believes that artists and writers will do most to bring about change by continuing to engage. “I think that, deep inside, the thing that attracts people to boycotts is that they are very easy. It is much more difficult to go and demonstrate every day in front of an embassy, in the rain, when barely any media comes to cover you. It’s much easier to stay at home and avoid dialogue.” While some mildly political remarks from Bono at a concert in Tel Aviv received wide media coverage, Heret says: “When people don’t come to perform in Israel, nobody gives a fuck. If you think that Netanyahu and his religious fundamentalist government are going to end occupation because Elvis Costello doesn’t come to perform then you have to be really naive.”
Keret’s own determination to make the case for compromise and negotiation has come at considerable personal cost. He describes Lev coming home from school one day, aged eight, and asking him to stop speaking publicly about his views. “I said to him, why? And he said because we learned at school that everyone who wanted peace in this region got killed, Rabin, Sadat, even John Lennon got shot. He said, I want peace too but more than that I want to have parents.”
Explaining the situation to a child growing up in Israel is a constant challenge. In order to show Lev why the Palestinians object to checkpoints, Keret and his wife set one up in their living room. “Every time he passed he would have to answer a question. Why do you need to pass? He’d say I need to pee, so I’d say do you really need to pee? When was the last time you peed? And after two hours he said I know why Palestinians are fighting, I’d fight too.”
In a similar way, The Seven Good Years brings the central conflict of our times – which can seem comfortingly remote – right into the living room. At some point, all parents have to have difficult conversations with their children about why the world is as it is; at some point we all put off calling the plumber. This is a vision of life in a war zone that readers everywhere can relate to. “When you’re living in other parts of the world I don’t think that raising a child or answering the questions is any easier, but perhaps it’s easier to push those big questions aside. We’re all listening to the same music, but maybe in Israel … the volume is slightly louder.”
• Etgar Keret’s is published by Granta.