‘Keret isn’t Israel’ – The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

eksgyFull disclosure: I had a dilemma as I read The Seven Good Years, Etgar Keret’s first collection of nonfiction. My dilemma was that, even though I like Keret, specifically, a great deal, and also, it should be said Jewish writers more generally (there are more Jewish writers on my copious bookshelves than writers of any other single faith), I’m with Noam Chomsky on the relationship Israel has with its Palestinian neighbours. What does this have to do with Etgar Keret’s book? Well, in this collection of what are essentially flash non-fictions, you have Keret talking about the effect of living in a place subject to ‘terrorist attacks’. I read ‘terrorist attacks’ and I think one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. And I know from books like The Drone Eats With Me or Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza that for every pea-shooter missile attack by the Palestinians, houses are razed, entire neighbourhoods are destroyed and generations of Palestinians are wiped out in a blow. I’m not saying it’s clean. I’m not saying I’ve picked a side. I know that there is a line that says Israel feels nervous surrounded by Arab nations; I also know that Israel has the backing of the US and that nothing is likely to change any time soon, and as nothing changes so Israel’s grip on the area grows, their illegal occupation of land grows, year by year. It’s quite hard to read parts of The Seven Good Years if you have even a slight knowledge of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

But that’s not to say that The Seven Good Years is an intensely political book. It has more in common with Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs than anything else, in that the seven good years of the title are the first seven years of Keret’s son’s life. Keret’s father experiences intense ill-health and there are moments that also recall Paul Auster’s Invention of Solitude. Hitched like bunting between these two poles is Keret’s experience of being a successful writer, travelling across the world, performing to small crowds and being the writer about town, even as his real life, as father, husband, son, grounds him. Taken individually as pieces of writing, there are chuckles to be had, just as there are chuckles to be had when reading Keret’s fiction. But then given what we’ve outlined in the opening paragraphs, the chuckles feel guilty. When you read the opening piece, for example, ‘Suddenly, the Same Thing’, which concerns a time Keret sat in ER whilst his wife was in labour and was asked by a journalist for his view on a terrorist attack, you want a categorical line from Keret about his own feelings on the situation and you don’t really get it. Elsewhere, in ‘Throwdown at the Playground’, we are gifted a row between Keret and his wife in which Keret defends the importance of the Israeli army (and his own child’s eventual place in it) while his wife says:

“I’m saying that we could have reached a peaceful solution a long time ago, and we still can. And that our leaders allow themselves not to do that because they know that most people are like you: they won’t hesitate to put their children’s lives into the government’s irresponsible hands.”

So I read and I read, and one moment I’m wondering if Keret is as likeable as I like to think he is (in ‘Requiem for a Dream’, he and his erstwhile buddy Uzi discuss ‘foreign accounts, foreign passports’ and ‘a nest egg in a foreign bank account’ – and I wonder, is Keret the kind of man who looks for creative ways to avoid paying his taxes?), which is then offset by pieces like ‘Fat Cats’, in which Keret rails (a little) against corruption and inequality in a way that sits very nicely alongside the best of his fiction.

But then, as the short pieces themselves started to stack up, and my enjoyment of the book increased, I started to take issue with my dilemma. I wouldn’t read a collection of nonfiction by an English writer and necessarily blame them for what the Government were up to (unless it was a collection of nonfiction that sought to defend what the Government were up to). My (slightly wrongheaded, it seems to me) dilemma centred on the fact that Keret happens to live in a place. Obviously he lives in a place and has experience of a place and that place informs his worldview. But that’s all. Keret’s warmth and decency and humanity shine out of these pages. Keret isn’t Israel. Tying one to the other makes for a bad fit. And it’s also ok for me to have ambivalent feelings towards Israel and still like Keret a lot. This is the conclusion I came to.  Thankfully I arrived at this conclusion with a good third of the book still to go which meant I could switch off the twitchy voice in my head and just read the book as it was meant to be read.

There is, as you’d expect a lot of humour here (Keret remains a tremendously funny writer), but there is also a lot of truth. Here is the opening of ‘Sleepover’ – I do this too:

“Here’s an interesting fact I’ve learned about my screwed-up personality that I’ve learned over the years: When it comes to taking on a commitment, there’s an inverse correlation between the proximity of my request in terms of time and my willingness to commit to it. So, for example, I might politely refuse my wife’s request to make her a cup of tea today, but I will generously agree to go grocery shopping tomorrow.”

There are pieces like ‘Accident’, that fold together three separate tragedies into one short burst in such a fashion that it’s a little hard to process the cumulative effect, or what the cumulative effect must be, upon the three main people in the story (Etgar, his wife, his father). But you are left with a great deal of sympathy, and it’s sympathy that flows naturally, that isn’t drawn from you by Etgar milking anything. The tragedies themselves are related extremely matter of factly. There are pieces that show you the kind of man Etgar Keret is (‘Moustache for my son’), and also the kind of life that Keret is living right now (or recently), as exemplified by the rather delightful and off the wall tale of the house gifted to him in Warsaw. And what’s more, and to return to the point that kicked off this review, in the last piece in the book, ‘Pastrami Sandwich’, you see, as I’ve kind of said above, that Keret and his family are just people living in a part of the world that is actually a little more difficult than the parts of the world that you or I probably live in.

Any Cop?: All told, it’s a great little book, perhaps Keret’s best book so far.

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