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Etgar Keret Finds Redemption

The Seven Good Years: A Memoir
By Etgar Keret
Riverhead Books, 192 pages, $26.95

For readers entranced by earlier encounters with Etgar Keret’s enchantingly unsettling portrayals of the absurdities of the human condition, the appearance of his memoir is surely cause for celebration. A recent collection of stories, “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door,” was widely hailed as his most mature and psychologically complex, and “Seven Good Years” successfully builds on those strengths while offering tantalizing forays into the relation between life and art. The seven years of the title traverse monumental upheavals in Keret’s life (his son’s birth on a day of terror, his much beloved father’s death), but also frequently pause for ruminations on the pleasures of the everyday. And it is here that Keret’s unrivalled voice really shines, offering startling revelations, wry humor, and notes of grace. And for readers who are aware that both of Keret’s parents were Holocaust survivors, the connection between that shadow and Keret’s literary sensibility proves increasingly revelatory and consequential in these reminiscences.

As Amos Oz recently remarked at UCLA: “Israeli writers are normalized. They write about everyday life: love, jealousy, solitude, ambition, longing, loss, the great and simple topics. Everyday existence in Israel is no longer… the epic of the birth of a nation. The nation is born for better or worse. So you will find fewer and fewer Israeli writers dealing with the birth of a nation… Instead, you will find more and more about the tragicomedy of everyday life in a beleaguered, besieged country.” Oz might have been thinking about Keret, who fulfills those premises of course, but whose work is also informed by a universalistic sensibility that has earned him enormous popularity among global audiences very remote from Israel’s reality. Ira Glass, an early admirer, once aptly observed that Keret’s stories “are funny, with tons of feeling, driving toward destinations you never see coming.” That holds true to a great extent in “Seven Good Years,” where a quiet dread sometimes seethes just beneath small moments, offbeat incidents, and strange dreams. Always on display is Keret’s astonishing capacity to transform even the pettiest of quotidian inconveniences (such as a delayed flight) into exuberant flights of fancy and realization. His voice is truly incomparable. For if the fantastical elements in his stories often invite comparisons to Kafka, Keret’s empathic curiosity and affection for other human beings sets him apart. He directly traces these traits to his survivor father’s experiences smuggling weapons for the Irgun on the coast of Sicily and his reliance on warm relationships with drunks, gangsters and prostitutes.

Keret regales us with how his father’s escapades morphed into the unlikely subjects of the bedtime stories that beguiled Keret every night of his childhood, leaving an indelible impact on his adult literary sensibility. Keret nimbly captures the euphoria of his father’s postwar liberation: “Compared with the horrors and cruelty he witnessed during the war, it’s easy to imagine how his new acquaintances from the underworld must have seemed to him: happy, even compassionate. He walks down the street, smiling faces wish him a good day in mellifluous Italian, and for the first time in his adult life, he doesn’t have to be afraid or hide the fact that he’s a Jew.” Recalling those bedtime tales now, Keret has an epiphany: “beyond their fascinating plots, they were meant to teach me something. Something about the almost desperate human need to find good in the least likely places. Something about the desire not to beautify reality but to persist in searching for an angle that would put ugliness in a better light and create affection and empathy for every wart and wrinkle on its scarred face.”

Among other loving (but reliably unsparing) portraits of his unusual family, Keret’s utterly insane yet true story about how his mother and father first met during the latter’s arrest for urinating on the wall of the French Embassy after a night of drunken carousing with a troupe of Gypsies is alone worth the price of admission. Though there were moments when I wondered whether this slim and sometimes episodic mélange might not truly fulfill most expectations of the memoir form (why not just call it “creative nonfiction”?), in the end I didn’t care, so thoroughly was I won over by Keret’s assurance in weaving together scenes from his public life as a writer who seems constantly en route from one unlikely overseas destination to the next, with intimate vignettes drawn from his life as a deeply caring son, sibling, husband and father.

In spite of its brevity, “Seven Good Years” delivers some very big truths, not only about Israeli society, but also in its portrayal of incidents from Keret’s public life abroad, some heartwarming but others quite chilling, such as when he meets a Hungarian in a bar after a literary event in Budapest, who proudly exposes the huge German eagle tattooed on his chest: “His grandfather killed three hundred Jews in the Holocaust, and he himself hoped to boast someday about a similar number.” Or when the Arab hotel clerk in France tells Keret and his good friend, Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, that if it were up to him, his hotel wouldn’t accept Jews. Of course for Keret such wounding incidents are opportunities to rally the defenses of ironic humor: “I spent the rest of the evening listening to Sayed’s grumblings that on top of forty-two years of the Zionist occupation, he also has to bear the insult of being taken for a Jew.”

The resolutely secular and generally apolitical Keret has siblings who have taken very different paths in life: a brother who embraces anarchism and lives in Thailand and a sister who became ultra-Orthodox and has 11 children. For many liberal Israelis who have experienced a loved one’s sudden choice to become a hozer betshuva (one who repentantly returns to the faith) this can feel like irreparable loss. Indeed, this phenomenon has become so widespread that a popular Israeli genre of mournful songs has emerged, though nobody captures the pain felt by those left in the wake of the conversions more precisely than Keret: “Nineteen years ago, in a small wedding hall in Bnei Brak, my older sister died, and she now lives in the most Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.” Though she refuses to let her children read any of the popular children’s books Keret has written (not even the specially illustrated “kosher” version he demanded that his publisher create, in which all the characters appear in pious dress), Keret’s farsighted and reconciliatory nature prevails. He genuinely regards each of the siblings’ lives as embodying equally valid paths toward redemption, through the troika of their dissimilar passions: art, politics, faith.

Whenever Keret turns his gaze on the foibles of Israeli society there are both tender and caustic moments to savor. Especially striking is the distinctive black humor of his compatriots, often embodied by his close friend Uzi who makes a number of memorable appearances. During the peak of Ahmadinejad’s escalating threats to annihilate Israel, he contemplates the fate of his real estate investments: “In a few months, that guy is going to have a nuclear bomb! Do you understand what a disaster it’ll be for me if he drops it on Tel Aviv?… Did you ever hear of a radioactive mutation that pays its rent on time?” However, other scenes painfully remind us that there are aspects of Israelilife that utterly elude the catharsis of humor, such as two parents’ bitter quarrel over whether their son, just a toddler, should ever serve in the IDF.

There are abysses in every life and Keret’s memoir demonstrates his quiet courage and wisdom in coping with one particularly horrific week that included his wife’s hospitalization after compli cations resulting from a miscarriage, the news that his father’s cancer has returned, and his own narrow escape from a terrifying car accident. “Seven Good Years” sparkles with humor and poignant wisdom, rendering wonderful immersions into Keret’s inner landscape, the gentle and deeply affecting ways that both strangers and loved ones stir his compassionate imagination. Yet perhaps that genuine sense of kinship extends only so far. Noting Keret’s choice not to bring this highly entertaining memoir out in Hebrew, I can only speculate that perhaps it contains too many references to certain “nudnik relatives” whose holiday invitations he assiduously declines.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is the author of “Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature & Film.”

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