My following book review appears in The Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age:
The Seven Good Years
By Etgar Keret
“During the 20 years I’ve been travelling the world, I’ve collected a number of genuine anti-Semitic experiences that can’t be explained away by a mistake in understanding,” writes Israeli novelist Etgar Keret in his first memoir.
He then recounts stories of select audiences at literary readings showing hatred simply because of his liberal, Jewish religion. “There’s nothing like a few days in Eastern Europe to bring out the Jew in you,” he notes. Being an Israeli doesn’t help, he concludes. Keret responds with humour and determination, not apologising for his faith or nationality though both often embarrass and shame him.
I recall being on a panel with Keret at Bali’s Ubud Writers Festival and he had no hesitation condemning the actions of his country’s government. “Perhaps this is the time to mention that the title of ‘most moral army in the world’ is, to my ears, akin to being lauded as ‘man with least facial hair in the Hezbollah leadership’,” he quipped in 2011 after Israel’s military faced yet another scandal.
Keret is an acclaimed short-story writer, graphic novelist and contributor to the American radio program This American Life who has turned his attention to the birth of his son, bringing up Lev in a nation that “longs for a real war to take the place of all those exhausting years of intifada … Once again, we’re a small country surrounded by enemies, fighting for our lives, not a strong, occupying country forced to fight daily against a civilian population.”
But this is not a book about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Keret is an acute observer of daily life and countless stories in this witty collection reflect his ability to dissect the neurosis that’s common among today’s Israelis.
Here he is on talking to young mothers with newborns that get pushed around Tel Aviv’s Ezekiel Park: “As a stressed-out Jew who considers his momentary survival to be exceptional and not the least bit trivial and whose daily Google Alerts are confined to the narrow territory between ‘Iranian nuclear development’ and ‘Jews+genocide’, there is nothing more enjoyable than a few tranquil hours spent discussing sterilising bottles with organic soap and the red-pink rashes on a baby’s bottom.”
The strength of Keret’s writings is his endless curiosities and interest in the human condition with all its messiness, fun, darkness and wonder. His sister “lives in the most Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem” and Keret navigates the almost torturous process of seeing her when, as a religious woman, she isn’t able to have a conventional relationship with him. “The fact that my sister will never read a single story of mine upsets me, I admit, but the fact that I don’t observe the Sabbath or keep kosher upsets her even more.”
One charming story Keret shares is spending a night in a Croatian museum with nobody else around. It’s part of a “cultural project” organised in the nation’s capital, Zagreb. “I sit down on the floor in front of a huge photograph of a gorgeous girl whose eyes seem to bore right into me.” The experience becomes a telling lesson in identity in a place where being Croatian, Bosnian or Serbian could until recently have “threatening political connotations”.
Being an Israeli in the 21st century, at a time when the Jewish state faces a growing boycott campaign of isolation over its brutality against the Palestinians, is a difficult identity to navigate. Keret travels the world constantly to discuss his work so he’s aware of how his country is often viewed negatively.
It’s perhaps unfair to presume every Israeli has a humane response to their government’s policies – should every Australian be questioned when overseas about Canberra’s discrimination towards its Indigenous population? – yet Keret remains an active and vocal citizen, highly critical of the state and refusing to dissociate entirely from it.
When he fights with his wife over whether their young son should join the military when he grows up, Keret tells her that “we live in a part of the world where our lives depend on it”. His wife vehemently disagrees. “I’d rather be controlling than have to take part in a military funeral on the Mount of Olives 15 years from now,” she says. In the end, all they can agree is on is “to spend the next 15 years working towards family and regional peace”.
Keret is optimist and misanthrope, joke teller and contradiction. The ghosts of modern Jewish history are never far from his mind but the Holocaust doesn’t restrict his freedom of imagination like so many children of World War II survivors. Ultimately, Keret is mischievous. There’s no better example of this than his fictitious book dedications: “To Avram. I don’t care what the lab tests show. For me, you’ll always be my Dad.”
Antony Loewenstein’s forthcoming book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe, will be published by Verso.