Mark Mor­due

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mark Mor­due

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

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