Straddling Borders

Etgar Keret
The Seven Good Years: A Memoir
(Riverhead Books, 2015)

An Israeli tour guide once said to me something to the effect of “Living in Israel is a choice, and it is a choice I make every day.” Even if the comment is an exaggeration, it is nonetheless striking to someone from the US, a country in which everyday life does not entail, as a matter of course, constant evaluation of the nation’s actions and of one’s place within it. We do not have an actively reflective relationship with our country. There are moments, of course—9/11, elections, Edward Snowden’s revelations—but all in all, living in the US is a passive act.

The intimacy implied by my tour guide, between the individual and the nation—and also its people—manifests itself in Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s memoir, The Seven Good Years. Renowned in Israel and abroad for his fiction, Keret’s first nonfiction work has not been published in Hebrew yet. It is out in French, Spanish, Turkish, and now, in English. Yet Keret has so far chosen not to have it published in his native language, seeking to avoid the personal exposure that would accompany publication of a book containing, as he says in an interview with Haaretz, “highly intimate descriptions that have to do with my father’s illness and also with my son.” This decision makes the book more or less unavailable to the people who live in the country where its stories take place. (The book is not a fleshed-out autobiography. It is divided into seven years, themselves subdivided into small vignettes, starting with the birth of Keret’s son, Lev, and ending with Keret’s father’s death six and a half years later.) I cannot imagine an American writer feeling such closeness with American readers that publishing his memoirs in English would render him vulnerable enough to choose not to do so.

Of course, Israel is a small country. Nonetheless, the extent to which the personal and the national are deeply intertwined in Keret’s book is surprising—and yet fairly standard for Israelis. On one hand, this fusion is imposed. When Keret travels to book fairs, he is there as an Israeli writer. Inevitably, he is a representative: “I’m the first Israeli writer ever to come to Bali. […] What do they see when they look at me?” he wonders. In another story, he comments, “There’s nothing like a few days in Eastern Europe to bring out the Jew in you.”

And yet, this commingling of the personal and the political is also self-motivated. In Sicily, Keret looks out over the Mediterranean Sea, which he lives next to in Tel Aviv. He realizes it’s “the same sea, but without the frightening, black, existential cloud I’m used to seeing hanging over it.” When conflict is close—unlike in the US—daily reality reflects and contorts around it. Existential questions sit side by side with quotidian ones. In “Bombs Away,” Keret’s friend Uzi, having heard from a high-ranking military official that Iran would soon have a nuclear bomb, worries, “Do you understand what a disaster it’ll be for me if [Ahmadinejad] drops it on Tel Aviv? I rent out fourteen apartments here. Did you ever hear of a radioactive mutation that pays its rent on time?” In response, both Keret and his wife fall into an existential torpor: “Why fix anything if the whole city is going to be wiped out in two months?” they ask themselves. The question gives birth to a situation reminiscent of the kind of magical realism typical of Keret’s fiction. (If you are unfamiliar with his short stories, check out his archive on This American Life. “What of This Goldfish Would You Wish?” is a particular favorite.) When Keret starts to question Ahmadinejad’s determination, his wife panics too, and so he reassures her: “We’ve already survived quite a bit together—illnesses, wars, terrorist attacks, and, if peace is what fate has in store, we’ll survive it too.” It is a witty reversal: peace has become something to be borne. But there is a note of truth to the sentiment; peace in Israel is tenuous after all. In one story, Keret talks about the “unconscious breath of relief” heaved by Israelis during a war with Lebanon—not because “we Israelis long for war or death or grief […] We long for a real war to take the place of all those exhausting years of intifada, when there was no black and white.”

Geopolitics is inescapable and routine. When Keret tries to save money on his phone bill by complaining to the customer service representative, the latter shames him by asking, “Tell me, sir, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? We’re at war. […] and all you can think about is your 50 shekels?” Impressed by this strategy, Keret then successfully deploys the same tactic on a taxi driver. And then there’s the question posed by a mother at the park where his three-year-old plays: “Will Lev go to the army when he grows up? [...] Don’t tell me you haven’t talked about it yet.” It is obvious then how national questions become personal: it is individuals that carry out government policies after all, especially in a country with compulsory military service. Keret’s wife observes, “Our leaders allow themselves not to [reach a peaceful solution] because they know that most people are like you: they won’t hesitate to put their children’s lives into the government’s irresponsible hands.” We inhabit a system but we also help create it. Keret, as an Israeli, seems particularly aware of this position. He is an agent and a pawn at the same time, a paradoxical and inescapable situation. For Keret, the resolution comes in observing life through the humane and compassionate lens provided by his father. When he was a child, his father told bedtime stories of the time he spent in Italy from 1946 – 1948. The lesson to be learned from these tales was “something about the desire not to beautify reality but to persist in searching for an angle that would put ugliness in a better light.” It seems to be the only way to navigate.

Contributor

Katharina Smundak

KATHARINA SMUNDAK teaches English and has a newsletter, tinyletter.com/smundak, which you should sign up for in case you don't have enough tabs open in your browser at any given time.

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