Etgar Keret on life and death

Israeli writer Etgar Keret disagrees with those who claim a role of social responsibility for his profession. After all, as he asked a meeting of Greek and Israeli writers in Kalamata recently, «who would trust anybody who spends their time at a computer writing lies and publishing them all over the world?» Yet behind this apparently dismissive attitude lies a nuanced notion of what writers and writing can do, on which Keret expanded at the meeting and later in an interview with Kathimerini English Edition. Mimesis His own work does reflect reality but carries no overt message. «The job of the writer is mimesis; it is not to have the clarity of a political position,» he said in Kalamata. «For me, literature is not about being responsible. It’s somewhere I can be myself. In fact, I’m the worst student in the class when it comes to responsibility.» With both his parents having lost their families in the Holocaust, Keret grew up thinking that his own concerns were too trivial by comparison to merit tears: «Family legend says that I didn’t cry after the age of 3.» The other crucial element that he believes shaped his personality was his learning, from a very early age, the skill of flattering the fat women who used to try on dresses in his mother’s shop. Humorously outlining the effect of these two factors on his own personality in classic psychoanalytical terms, Keret said: «So I had an overly developed super ego, an extremely active subconscious, and no ego to mediate between the two. I think my stories are actually complaints delivered by my subconscious.» Though his work conveys no explicit political message, it does not shy away from reality. «In literature,» Keret explained, «you can deal with the present as if in a laboratory. I take hatred, xenophobia, violence, and deal with them in a separate location. I can deal with how I feel about being in a place where suicide bombings take place on a regular basis.» The everyday world inevitably affects the way he writes, threatening to subvert even the language he uses: «When we live in extreme situations, we resort to cliches. I find I’m copying the media; I’m influenced by them. I start using the words they use – ‘inexplicable’ and ‘horrifying.’ This is the challenge of writing amid the harshest reality, to keep some sort of ambiguity and complexity in situations.» One effect of political events on new Israeli writing has been to transform its depiction of «the other,» in this case Arabs. In Keret’s view, «the great change in the portrayal of ‘the other’ in Israeli literature came from the two Intifadas. Up until the ’80s, the view of liberal writers in Israel toward Arabs was, at many times a colonial one. The writers were very empathic toward Arabs but claimed, as writers, to know all their needs and ambitions. One of the most famous Arab characters in the literature of those generations was Yehoshuoa’s Arab in ‘Against the Forest.’ This Arab is mute and needs an Israeli to interpret the sounds and gestures he makes. «With the Intifadas and the failure of the Oslo process, the Arab was finally recognized in new Israeli literature as someone who is different, with desires and ambitions that may be different from ours. This new existence may at first sight seem less politically correct than the old one, because the Arab can often invoke suspicion and fear, but it is much more moral and honest. I think it is necessary to overcome the old patronizing tone of the past. Only by admitting the other as someone who is not completely understood do we admit him as an equal.» Keret’s own fiction puts a quirky spin on the everyday world. In his collection «The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,» reality in its grimmest form impinges on some stories, such as «Cocked and Locked,» a stark tale of a standoff between an Israeli soldier on sentry duty and a Palestinian who is taunting him. But for the most part, that side of modern reality enters only sideways, as a hint at the margins of the tale. In «Rabin’s Dead,» Rabin is a cat, whose death overshadows that of the assassinated prime minister whose name he bears for the child who narrates the tale. The preoccupations of childhood and adolescence play a large part in these stories, whether it is a boy refusing to break the piggy bank in which his parents have made him collect his savings rather than buying him a toy outright in «Breaking the Pig,» or a teenager’s troubles at home and school in «The Son of the Head of the Mossad.» Touches of the unreal Apart from «Good Intentions,» where a contract killer is hired to murder the only person who has ever done him a good turn, few of the stories go for the classic twist in the tail. Some gain their effect by endings capable of more than one interpretation, as in «Crazy Glue,» while others go for little touches of the unreal – an angel with wings hidden under an old coat, a village in Uzbekistan built close by the entrance to Hell, each of whose inmates eventually emerges for a single day to buy treats at the local shops. Death and Hell are recurring themes, often presented as the flip side of life on earth. The most elaborate version is in «Kneller’s Happy Campers,» set in a part of Hell reserved for suicides, which can be read as a wry commentary on the world of the living. As the narrator says, in the past when people talked about whether there was life after death, he used to imagine sonar waves and people floating in the air but «where I am now reminds me more of Tel Aviv.» The author Etgar Keret, born in Tel Aviv 1967, has made his name in Israel as a writer and as a filmmaker who also lectures at the Tel Aviv University Film School. All his books have won awards and become best sellers and many of his stories have been made into films. His films have won prizes at home and abroad and his work has been translated into numerous languages. His short-story collection, «The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,» published in English by Thomas Dunne Books (2001), has just come out in a Greek translation by Maggie Cohen in Kastaniotis’s Writers from Around the World series.