The Seven Good Years By Etgar Keret Scribe, 192pp, $27.99
Like most good memoirists, Etgar Keret does not tell us everything. It’s this restraint that makes him such a deceptively fine, if sometimes hit-and-miss, writer in his fiction and nonfiction. I have never forgotten reading Breaking the Pig in his 2004 debut short story collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God. It ends with a young boy sneaking out from home at night and leaving a piggy bank in “a thorny field”. You leave that pig, the field, and the story as certainly as you leave part of your own childhood.
As a fiction writer Keret’s surreal debts to Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut are generally noted — while Keret himself identifies his stories as “secular Hasidic fairytales” — but there’s a singular realism dominating his most recent work inching him towards Raymond Carver territory.
Until now the 48-year-old Tel Aviv resident has dedicated himself exclusively to the art of the short story — if one ignores an involvement with graphic novels, television shows, modern dance performance and film projects, one of which, Jellyfish, directed by Keret and written by his wife Shira Geffen, won the 2007 Camera d’Or at Cannes.
The Seven Good Years is his first nonfiction collection, a series of vignettes that maps the period when “I became a father to my son, and was still a son to my father”.
Keret’s opening piece Suddenly, the Same Thing deals with the birth of his son Lev at an overwhelmed hospital coping with the aftermath of a terrorist attack; the collection closes with Pastrami, the name of a game he suggests to pacify his fearful seven-year-old as Keret lays on top of Lev and his wife by the roadside when air raid sirens go off signalling a missile strike. In between he covers everything from parallels between religious fundamentalism and playing Angry Birds, to the manner in which his father faces a terminal cancer diagnosis and day-today life as a secular liberal Jew in Israel.
The connection between Keret’s short stories and these nonfiction pieces can be seen in their brevity, typically a maximum of four easyto-read pages. Emotional themes such as fear and compassion continue. Though not nearly as reality-warping (no talking fish; no Chagall-like wives stuck to the ceiling; no kooky afterlife limbos), his nonfiction still hints at something magical that can tilt towards karmic punishment. There’s also his casually seductive voice as it hovers between boyish humour and cosmic sorrow. Fans will feel these elements are more strongly realised in his short fiction than these memoir notes. The sketch-like quality of his writing can reduce certain pieces to the disposable charms of a weekend lifestyle columnist. More often than not, however, Keret yields results that are more profound.
Summarising a Keret story can be a difficult business as they are so short as to almost summarise themselves. His writing can be guileless, even outwardly clumsy. Keret describes himself as a storyteller more than a writer. High literary style does not interest him. Indeed he comes on like someone telling you a rambling joke or stoned misadventure. His style is to seem improvised, to make you feel as if his stories are stumbling into shape as you read them.
It’s impossible to ignore the Israeli context behind this work, or the contemporary significance of his humanist literary project in a divisive and menacing realm. And yet he is also part of a Hebrew literary tradition that involves everything from the Midrash to teaching riddles and mystical texts.
In My First Story Keret reveals his origins as a writer: “I was nineteen, a terrible, depressed soldier who was counting the days to the end of his compulsory service. I wrote the story during an especially long shift in an isolated, windowless computer room deep in the bowels of the earth.” Keret tracks down his older brother to read it. He appears moved and asks Keret if he has another copy. Reassured, his older brother scoops up his dog’s freshly deposited faeces off the street with the pages. This could add up to little more than an anecdote with a comic punchline. But Keret goes on:
crassly Unintentionally, my brother had told me something: the story I had written wasn’t the creased, shit-smeared paper now sitting at the bottom of the rubbish bin on the street. That page was just a pipeline through which I could transmit my feelings from my mind to his. I don’t know what a wizard feels the first time he manages to cast a spell, but it’s probably something similar to what I felt at that moment; I had discovered magic that I knew would help me survive the long two years until my discharge.
The story Keret had written was called Pipes, though Keret never tells you that. What he also leaves out of My First Story is how his best friend in the army committed suicide by shooting himself in the head while they were on duty together. Pipes was Keret’s attempt to grapple with this. In the original story, which also never refers to the suicide, a misfit narrator discovers the pipes he is building in a factory might lead him to another world when he begins rolling marbles through them and they disappear. He decides to build a pipe large enough to crawl into. When he comes out the other side he finds a heaven where angels are playing with the marbles. This odd story is a prototype for the mature Keret: the near childlike directness, the dreamy inclinations, the subtext of death, the unfinished edges and the fable-like power of the imagination to provide escape and healing.
But why does Keret persist in leaving out such powerful biographical detail in this work of memoir? I think it’s because the book’s purpose descends from an old Jewish tradition of ethical wills left by fathers for their sons. Throughout his five previous short-story collections Keret has been rolling marbles back from the otherworld of his inner exile. With The Seven Good Years you get the feeling he has decided to crawl back along the literary pipe to re-engage with the reality on behalf of his son. His next collection of fiction will be something to read.
is an author and critic.
Etgar Keret takes his storytelling style into the realm of nonfiction