Q&A with Author Etgar Keret

Published on 2 November 2017

Etgar Keret (Photo: Ewa Szatybelko)

Ahead of his talks and panel discussions at the Singapore Writers Festival 2017, Israeli author Etgar Keret shares insights on his works, which have been translated into more than 40 languages.

By Lim Cheng Tju

If one were to read Etgar Keret without knowing about his background, one would think he is a mere dark humour writer about absurd situations. But the 50-year-old Israeli writer is much more than that. There are barbs in the punch lines and the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict is never far in the translated tales of Keret who lived in Tel Aviv with his filmmaker wife and young son.

While collections like The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories (containing his first short story, ‘Pipes’) affirmed his position as a master of the short story genre, his latest book, The Seven Good Story – inspired by the birth of his son and learning about his father’s cancer – was his first foray into non-fiction.

Keret’s stories have been translated into more than 40 languages and they have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Le Monde, The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He will be a guest of the Singapore Writers Festival for the first time next month. He is featured on three panel sessions – moroseness may prevail, but some life-affirming laughter is guaranteed.

Your last book was The Seven Good Years (2015). How has it been since then? Seven bad years or more difficult ones as you mentioned in your interview with The Guardian two years ago?

The last couple of years were not more difficult (nor any easier) than the ones before them. The title The Seven Good Years refers to the seven years I’ve been lucky enough to be both a son to my father and a father to my son. Both my parents were orphaned at an early age and were unable to share their happiness of being a parent with their own parents. Those ‘Seven Good Years’ of being able to do that had ended with the death of my father. This doesn’t mean that the years after that were meant to be bad, just that this special, wonderful gift was gone.

You get attached to taxi drivers and you talk to them on your rides – has Uber changed the kind of interaction you have with the drivers?

In Israel, Uber isn’t allowed yet for security reasons but I’ve had long and very interesting talks with Uber drivers in the U.S. during my travels. Most of the drivers I’ve met there were driving as a second and sometimes third job, and the life they’ve shared with me were never easy. But then again, life never is.

Pipes is one of the funniest stories I have read. But finding out that it was inspired by the suicide of your army buddy was sobering. If such a giant pipe exists and you are able to crawl through it, who would you like to meet or think you will meet?

For me, that pipe already exists in the form of writing and other arts. The moment I write a story, I feel I move to another world, one in which I can be both free and totally exposed with no stresses and fears.

Etgar Keret (Photo: Alessandro Moggi)

We have National Service in Singapore too. What are your thoughts about National Service and defence? Is it naïve to think we can just get along with what’s happening in the world right now?

In Israel, compulsory army service seems to be essential to our existence so I totally understand why I served in the army and why my son probably will too. Having said that, this doesn’t mean that serving in the army is any less depressive. Being in a system that is all about teaching you how to kill people and how to be willing to sacrifice your own life to beat the enemy can never be too optimistic or happy.

There are bus drivers who want to be god. What sort of occupation do you think god would like to have if he or she were to stay with us for a while?

After all of his or her ions of creating worlds and universes, I think that God would probably love just  to retire.

How has the birth of your son changed your writing and the stories you choose to tell?

Before my son was born, I’ve written many stories about a father-child relationship from the child’s perspective. After his birth, I find myself revisiting similar themes in my stories – only this time I’m writing them from the parent’s perspective.

You said you had a happy childhood, growing up with parents who are Holocaust survivors. That’s a rather different experience from some other writers like Art Spiegelman, Michel Kichka and Miriam Katin, who had tough relationships with their parents. Why do you think your experience as a child was different from the others whose parents were survivors?

I think that the big difference between me and many of the other Second Generation writers you’ve mentioned was that my parents had passed the Holocaust as children. I’ve once asked my father how he could be so optimistic after seeing the horrors of life and war, and my father had answered “When I was a child, I thought that life is only pain, fear and horror. And since then, things just kept surprising me for the better. Isn’t this the definition of optimism?”

You were involved in the Israeli comic scene in the 1990s, with Rutu Modan, Asaf Hanuka and the Actus Tragicus collective. What made you stop writing comics and will you go back to the medium one day?

When I started collaborating with Rutu and Asaf, we were all very young and had all the time in the world. As we grew older and busier, both Rutu and Asaf wanted to use more of their time to tell their own stories. They are both amazing storytellers, so I think they have made a good decision. But, to be honest, I miss collaborating with them. This week, Asaf and I started on a new comic book story we want to include in the new Israeli edition of the graphic novel we published 20 years ago called Streets Of Rage and when we sat down and wrote together we both felt incredibly young. I wish we’ll have chances to this more often in the future.

Your stories deal with race, language and religion – are these still fault lines that plague our world today? What is the way forward?

I think that a lot of the violence and incitements we see around us come from fear and ignorance. Stories are a good way to make the other seem closer and less strange and I do hope that through the different mediums, we can help the more fearful people in our societies understand that communicating with each other is always the best option.

To find out more about Keret’s sessions at SWF 2017, click here.

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