Win­dow into a dis­tinct view

‘The Seven Good Years’ is short-story writer Et­gar Keret’s con­cise take on cur­rent events and is­sues

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Carolyn Kel­logg carolyn.kel­logg@latimes.com

The Seven Good Years

A Memoir

Et­gar Keret

River­head: 172 pp., $26.95

If I could get you to read one writer, it would be Et­gar Keret.

His im­pos­si­ble blend of hu­mor and tragedy, cyn­i­cism and em­pa­thy as well as big-hearted nar­ra­tives that oc­cupy the tini­est of page counts make him one of my fa­vorites. Maybe one of yours.

“The Seven Good Years” is Keret’s first book of non­fic­tion, af­ter five col­lec­tions of sur­real and won­der­ful short sto­ries. The writ­ing here re­veals that some of the strange­ness Keret works into his fic­tion comes from the unique way he sees the real world: a lit­tle bent, ex­as­per­ated, amused and yet also with deep wells of kind­ness.

The book is roughly chrono­log­i­cal, span­ning the seven years be­tween his son’s birth and his fa­ther’s death. Given that year seven be­gins with an in­stall­ment called “Shiva,” it’s clear that the “Good” of the ti­tle is a bit wry — but then again, who knows? Maybe things will get worse.

Keret’s son ar­rives dur­ing a ter­ror­ist at­tack on Tel Aviv; at the hos­pi­tal, the au­thor is rec­og­nized by a jour­nal­ist re­port­ing on the vic­tims. When he ex­plains that he wasn’t at the scene, the re­porter com­plains that he was hop­ing for a fresh per­spec­tive, be­cause he al­ways hears the same bomb­ing sto­ries. “It’s not their fault,” Keret tells him. “It’s just that the at­tacks are al­ways the same. What kind of orig­i­nal thing can you say about an ex­plo­sion and sense­less death?”

“Beats me,” the man replies. “You’re the writer.”

That’s a funny ex­change but also Keret’s man­date; he does, in fact, find some­thing orig­i­nal to say in the 35 pieces that fol­low (in fewer than 200 pages — as al­ways, his writ­ing is bril­liant and short). This ma­te­rial was orig­i­nally pub­lished in mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers and, as col­umns are asked to do, deal with the is­sues at hand. These in­clude a new of­fen­sive to­ward Gaza, what his son said in the bath and f light de­lays while get­ting to farflung literary fes­ti­vals.

For this rea­son, some es­says that touch on Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion may feel re­mote, even dated — yet si­mul­ta­ne­ously the Is­raeliPales­tinian con­flict has loomed so large for so long that Keret’s pol­i­tics may be im­por­tant to some read­ers. He’s an Is­raeli who is of­ten crit­i­cal of his na­tion’s con­ser­va­tive lead­ers, some­one who wishes there were a way to­ward peace; he’s not writ­ing com­men­tary, but pol­i­tics sim­mers in his work.

That it does this while he’s os­ten­si­bly writ­ing about play­ing “An­gry Birds,” ar­gu­ing with taxi driv­ers, run­ning across a Swede in Bali or spend­ing a night in the Za­greb Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art is a tes­ta­ment to how far-rang­ing Keret can be and how quickly his prose can take a sur­pris­ing turn.

Take the many-faceted “Jam” as an ex­am­ple. It starts with the au­thor in War­saw, try­ing to ex­plain to a wait­ress in his nonex­is­tent Pol­ish that he has just spent the night in a 47-inch-wide space that he calls “home.” A Pol­ish ar­chi­tect, inspired by Keret’s min­i­mal­ist prose, had seen a tiny gap be­tween two build­ings in the city and “that gap,” he writes to Keret, “told me that I had to build you a house there.”

Keret dis­misses the ar­chi­tect’s in­spi­ra­tion, “which I filed away in my mem­ory un­der ‘Un­clear Prac­ti­cal Jokes.’” The ar­chi­tect, how­ever, is per­sis­tent, fi­nally send­ing a draw­ing of “a nar­row, three-story house.” Keret brings it to his mother, who rec­og­nizes the lo­ca­tion: She used to pass it while smug­gling food into the War­saw Ghetto dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Born in this city in 1934, she sur­vived the Holo­caust, but her fam­ily did not. Although she has never re­turned, she is proud of her son’s literary suc­cess there — which brings us back to Keret, whose name is now part of the street as a com­po­nent of this strange and silly art pro­ject, its pres­ence re­vealed as a mon­u­ment to those who were lost.

Born in Is­rael in 1967, Keret ex­ists in be­tween. He’s not a vic­tim, but as an Is­raeli he’s un­der threat of vi­o­lence, even as he sees Is­rael vis­it­ing its own de­struc­tion on Gaza. What’s his place in that cy­cle? What can he do? He tells sto­ries. Like the one he shares about what hap­pens when an air-raid siren catches his fam­ily driv­ing and they must pull over to the side of the road and lie on the ground for safety. His son will not oblige. In­stead of scar­ing him and telling him about the dan­ger, Keret plays a game: Pas­trami sand­wich, where the fam­ily lies in a pile, Keret on top. If the bombs ever stop fall­ing, his wife prom­ises the boy, they can still play.

He’s an Is­raeli who is of­ten crit­i­cal of his na­tion’s con­ser­va­tive lead­ers, some­one who wishes there were a way to­ward peace.

Jonathan Bloom River­head

ET­GAR KERET’S “The Seven Good Years” spans the time be­tween his son’s birth and his fa­ther’s death. All three are shown.

River­head

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