Israel at 60: the Etgar Keret Version

The writer Etgar Keret was our Open Source witness in Israel two years ago to a general (local, global, existential) disbelief and alienation from the war on Lebanon. And now we have the pleasure of meeting him in the flesh on a campus visit to Brown.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Etgar Keret here (24 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

etgar keret

Etgar Keret: “a Jew in a diaspora of Israel”

Edgar Keret’s bizarre, violent, popular short stories (in a collection The Girl on the Fridge) are cited as a register of Israel’s consciousness, post-Intifada and post-peace process. Crowbar beatings, sledge-hammer murders and other grotesque happenings abound in these fictions. In one, a kids’ party magician reaches into the hat and pulls out, first, a rabbit’s bleeding severed head and, later, a dead baby. He concludes: “It’s as if someone was trying to tell me this is no time to be a rabbit, or a baby. Or a magician.”

Keret’s Israeli characters are caught in states of mind and spirit between love and suicide, between boredom and brutal anger. As in this story, “Asthma Attack,” reproduced here in full, the writer keeps fighting through the frenzy, for words:

When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones — those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asmatic says “I love you,” and when an asthmatic says “I love you madly,” there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.

Etgar Keret, “Asthma Attack,” in The Girl on the Fridge, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2008.

In our conversation, Etgar Keret and I were both trying (and failing!) to remember the source of the notion that art, including fiction, is the layer of the human record (unlike the monuments of warfare and politics) that does not lie.

CL: Imagine a hundred years from now people are reading this red-hot popular Israeli writer from 2008, Etgar Keret, for the truth about Israel. What would they learn?

Etgar Keret: Well, I think that they would learn that people in Israel know a little bit less than what they pretend to know; that they’re a little bit bit less confident than they want their neighbor to think; that there’s a very strong ambiguity and confusion among the Israeli people — the same ambiguity and confusion that all human beings tend to share.

CL: Can you explain how you became the rage among young Israelis in the last few years? Not the familiar image of the Israeli writer, you’re anti-epic and anti-macho, a cuddly, eccentric vegetarian who writes about people who are beset with perplexity and pain and fearful violence and, as you say, confusion.

EK: Well, I think that growing up In Israel, I think the one thing that’s not allowed is to be confused. Being surrounded by so many enemies who want to attack us, the last thing you want to do is to raise more questions, or to be more confused and uncertain. But at some stage you realize it’s actually the fact that you live in such an unsafe situation that makes all those questions that you are supposed to postpone more urgent. Because if you know you are going to die for something you want to know what you are going to die for. You don’t want to postpone it for later.

CL: Are these stories written from the perspective of a writer who’s worrying what he’s going to die for?

EK: Well, yeah… It’s not to die for, or live for. There is something about life, especially when you come from Israel, in a region where everything is so extreme, there’s something very overwhelming about life, you know. And it leaves you with your mouth open, with your jaw falling down, you know. And this is the situation I wanted to write about. Because there is something about Israelis that whenever you speak to people they give you this feeling that they are certain about all those answers. And they have all those answers, but those answers don’t seem to be working all around us.

So if there’s anything I want to say about this reality, it is maybe: take some sort of Socratic position and just say that we may know less about what’s right, and what we are feeling at a certain moment and what should be done. I’m saying I feel it’s important to admit our limitations and our confusion just so we can start finding the real answers, and it’s much better than kind of doing that than settling for some fake answers that seem to be going around in circulation for the last 60 years.

Etgar Keret, in conversation with Chris Lydon, May 1, 2008.

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