It’s been too long. I’ve been on the road with my Bloodhound: Searching for my Father and I’m thrilled to report that my new book project has now been signed with my wonderful publishers at Text Publishing.
This is the most delicious part of a book where I read far and wide and get my bearings on a whole new vista of ideas and people and places. I’m very excited.
I won’t have too much time for distractions. But I had to say yes to a request to interview the brilliant Israeli writer Etgar Keret next month here in Melbourne. I’m looking forward to reading his new book, and in the meantime, here’s an interview that I prepared beforehand.
From March, 2004.
Etgar Keret: Life is absurd, I think, for everyone. There was a suicide attack in Israel. Somebody attempted to do a suicide attack and at the last moment decided not to kill themselves but to throw the bomb inside the bus, and he was successful in killing only one person and his dog, and the man who did it, the terrorist, became blind. The only person he succeeded in killing was the number one trainer of dogs for blind men. So I’m saying that somebody made themselves blind and killed the only person who can help him, it’s absurd. And you know, this is the news pages, this is not fiction.
Ramona Koval: That’s the voice of Israeli short-story writer, essayist, comic-book writer, and film-script writer, Etgar Keret. You’re on Radio National Summer, I’m Ramona Koval, and on Books and Writing, a conversation with one of the most charming and intriguing guests at last year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week. Etgar Keret charmed the audiences with his sweet, deep stories and his highly original voice. Born in Tel Aviv in 1967, Keret began publishing short stories in newspapers in 1991, and his first collection, Pipelines, appeared in 1992. He’s written a column in a Jerusalem weekly newspaper, and a comic strip in a local Tel Aviv paper. His movie, Skin Deep, won the Israeli Oscar, as well as first prize at several international film festivals. A film based on one of his stories received the 1998 American MTV prize for the best animated film. He writes comedy for Israeli television and he lectures at Tel Aviv University School of Film. His short story collections in English are The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and The Nimrod Flip-Out. The stories are sometimes funny, almost always a little strange, but never less than multilayered. Keret’s world is a magical place; fish talk back in restaurants, strange dwarves engineer the romantic lives of anxious young men, and children grow taller at the expense of their parents, who get smaller and smaller and risk disappearing into the void.
[Reading from ‘Fatso’ by Etgar Keret-from Surprised? Of course I was surprised… to…what else can you say?]
Ramona Koval: Etgar, reading your stories one gets the feeling that they start with a question which might arise from daily living, and then you move the question and extend the possibilities and see what might happen. So perhaps the idea that men like women for sex and certain kinds of companionship, and then men like their men friends for other kinds of relationships…but what might happen if you found a person who was a woman for part of the time and a hairy man for the other part of the time that you could go and watch television with and go to bars with and go to soccer games for the rest of the time, which really morphs into your story called ‘Fatso’. So, am I right? Is that how it begins?
Etgar Keret: Well, the story about ‘Fatso’ is that my girlfriend told me once, ‘You write so many stories about your family and your friends, and you never wrote a story about me. So why don’t you write a story about me?’ And I wanted to write a story that will come out from the place where I experience the relationship and our love. When I write stories I don’t think about all this stuff, but basically what I felt I was writing about was…when you fall in love with somebody you kind of invent him in the image of what you would like him to be. Then there is this point in a relationship when you see that it is completely different and it is very difficult to accept that. I think in the past I had relationships where my partner showed herself as somebody that surprised me completely and I was too scared and just gave up on the relationship. And I think that true love is really when you take all those things that alienate you in the beginning, and with time you learn that this is actually the things that you love in your partner, and this is actually what makes your relationship unique; it’s those strange things that are just different names to call your love. My girlfriend-I can say this because it’s in Australia so nobody in Israel will hear it-she has a funny walk. It’s kind of like an old lady’s walk. And in the beginning when I’d just met her I said, ‘Oh she’s so beautiful but she walks like an old lady,’ you know? And the more I knew her and the more I fell in love with her, I kind of loved the walk because when I would walk next to her and I would look at her, I could imagine us as old people walking together down the street. This thing which kind of alienated me in the beginning became one of the things I liked the most about her, and this is the story of ‘Fatso’. You know, you discovered your girlfriend is really…turns at night into a hairy, vulgar guy. In the beginning it scares you. You say, ‘Whoa, I’ve been sleeping with this hairy guy,’ and then you see that this is the perfect relationship because you have a beautiful girlfriend and at night you can watch sport and curse and eat steaks and burp.
Ramona Koval: What about ‘Shooting Tuvia’, which is a story about a dog. Is the question you ask yourself there-what are the limits of a faithful dog, and then you sort of expand on that question?
Etgar Keret: This is a funny story because I wrote a story about this boy that gets a dog that he really loves and the dog really loves him, but the dog really hates everybody else and bites everybody, except for the kid who owns him. And the story is how the father tries to get rid of the dog and is unable to, and in the end the father just takes him somewhere and shoots him in the head, and the dog comes back with a bullet in his head-he’s limping, he can’t move his jaw but he still comes back. I was asked by a German paper, Die Welt, to give them a political story for a magazine that they did, and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t have any political stories with me.’ They said, ‘Okay, give us just a regular story and we’ll print it in next month’s edition because we’re doing a special.’ I sent them the story and they called me and they said, ‘This is so political because it’s so obvious that the dog is the Palestinians, and the father who shoots him is the Israelis, and the kid is the accused bystander who cannot make up his mind.’ It sounds like total bullshit to me because, you know, I thought I was just writing a story about a boy and his dog. But the more I talked to them I really understood that it was a political story about the situation in Israel, but the politics were something else. I think it was the story about the fact that when you grow up and live in very crazy and violent surroundings, you don’t judge them and you don’t try to change them; you just accept them. The same was for Hugo, the kid who likes the dog so much, he never rebels against his father, he never questions it, he never says, ‘Maybe my father shouldn’t shoot him,’ he just says, ‘Okay, this is the way life is.’ And it is the same for me, you know, when I go to a coffee place in Israel and I don’t sit next to the window because I know that if a bomb will go off the glass will cut my face. I don’t say to myself, ‘Why does my life look like this? There are people in Adelaide and Melbourne that just sit in a coffee place and are not afraid that they are going to die.’ I just say to myself that this is life, you know, so I better pick this table and not that one. The story is, I think, about that, about accepting crap and not trying to do anything to change it.
Ramona Koval: As a reader I could see that kind of attitude in the story, but it’s really a story about that dog. That dog is so enthusiastic and loves that boy so much that nothing will change that faithfulness, as if the dog accepts that sometimes you get shot, but still you go back.
Etgar Keret: For me, this story is really about friendship because I have very good friends. My best friends, I’ve known them since I was three years old, you know, we were together for more than 30 years, and there are many things about them that are difficult. They are not objectively the nicest people but our friendship and our loyalty is something that is stronger than that. Actually, I think that growing up as a son to Holocaust survivors; loyalty was always a key thing. A friend meant somebody that will stand by you even in the worst cases, it will hide you if the Germans will come, and it will protect you in each and every way. Loyalty was something that could balance many bad things. In this sense I think that me and my friends, both of us are a little bit like those dogs, we can be very unbearable and rude to strangers but a friendship is very, very strong; you can’t deny it.
Ramona Koval: Because many of your stories actually are about friendship, connections, people who can’t accept everything about each other but are willing to forgive or…even that story about the angel in your first collection, the main guy is really trying hard to be a good friend to this guy who’s not much of a friend. So friendship is very important in your stories.
Etgar Keret: Well, I think because it’s very important in my life. I always see human beings as some sort of relation, you know, it’s difficult for me to think about me just in limbo. When I’m with my girlfriend I’m one person, when I’m with my best friend I’m another person, when I’m with my parents I’m a third person, and those relationships and those commitments make me what me what I am, and I think it makes each human being what he is.
Ramona Koval: What about in that story, ‘Your Man’, where a man is lucky with women, or he keeps meeting good-looking women, and he thinks that somebody is trying to stop his relationships or undermine his relationships, but it actually turns out that the person he thinks is undermining his relationships is actually creating them for him, and then undermining them. It’s a very absurd kind of story, that you kill the source of your pleasure or you kill the source of your success. It’s a very absurd story. Is life absurd for you?
Etgar Keret: Life is absurd, I think, for everyone. Some people don’t like to admit it but life is absurd. I was just saying to somebody in the lobby the other day that there was a suicide attack in Israel. Somebody attempted to do a suicide attack and at the last moment decided not to kill themselves but to throw the bomb inside the bus, and he was successful in killing only one person and his dog, and the man who did it, the terrorist, became blind. The only person he succeeded in killing was the number one dog-training expert in Israel, and a dog that he prepared for a blind man. Now there’s actually the problem that new blind men cannot get a navigation dog for themselves. So I’m saying that somebody made themselves blind and killed the only person who can help him; it’s absurd. And you know, this is the news pages, this is not fiction. So I think that life is absurd and I think that this story, ‘Your Man’, is basically about the fact that many times we don’t like to take responsibility for the failure of a relationship, and the hero of the story, you know, whenever a relationship fails he doesn’t ask himself, ‘What did I do wrong?’ He tries to understand who’s guilty for this. And as you know, in life usually you’re guilty for most of the bad things that happen to you, not all of them, but many of them. So it’s really a story about taking responsibility.
Ramona Koval: There’s elements of the cartoon in some of these short stories where you can have impossible physical things happening simply because you’re animating it, you’re animating life, and I know that you like cartoons and you create them yourself. Is there something of a cartoon sense in these stories?
Etgar Keret: I think both cartoons and my stories are connected to one thing, and that’s the feeling of liberation I feel when I write, because I feel I’m somebody who is very much constrained by life. I feel that life is much more than I’m able to experience. When I write, I have this kind of zero gravity feeling; nothing stops you, you can do whatever you want, and you can go wherever you want, and your characters can defy the laws of physics. It really doesn’t matter, you know, you can go with your truth very, very far. And it’s something that is not trivial for me because, coming from a second generation Holocaust survivor family, always as a kid I thought about the consequences of my actions. I really didn’t want to hurt my parents, and I really didn’t want to hurt anybody else. I remember many times as a child when I would get punched, I wouldn’t cry because I would say, ‘This isn’t good enough for crying.’ You shouldn’t let people feel bad about you because it’s really okay; it just hurts a little bit. As a kid, my mother owned a clothes shop, she would sell clothes, and I remember since being very small I would always hang out in the store, and it would be very important for me to make the customers, especially the ugly ones, you know, the old or the ones who didn’t have a good figure, to make them feel good, to say to them, ‘Oh it’s so beautiful, it looks great on you, it brings out the green in your eyes’, and all this kind of stuff that older people usually do but I kept doing it when I was a few years old because all the time I wanted everybody to be pleased, you know? I think that for me, writing fiction is a kind of a release because I don’t have to think about anyone when I’m writing it, I don’t have to think about…not only about people’s emotion but about laws of physics or laws of gravity. What I feel is what happens and it’s a special thing for me.
Ramona Koval: Sometimes I think, when I’m reading your stories, that they begin with a phrase like ‘do one good deed a day’…it seems like a simple thing but it’s not necessarily simple.
Etgar Keret: I think nothing in life is really simple, and I think that the greatest lesson that I’ve ever learned from growing up is admitting that, because many times I have thought that life is simple and it just really fucks it up, you know? It should be simple, so why isn’t it? I really think that especially when you come from a place like Israel where it doesn’t matter what your point of view is, it’s always very extreme and it’s always black and white, and there are always good guy and bad guys, and ones that try to kill you and the ones that you usually try to kill. And for me, if I have something to shout, it is some sort of cry for ambiguity. Say, first, that I want everybody to admit that it isn’t simple, that it’s really, really complicated. That’s the first thing I want you to admit, and then let’s see how we get on from that, but first I want you to admit that, you know? For me, everything is really, really complex. I must admit that when I go on public transportation…for me, transaction, you know, buying a chocolate bar at a kiosk, isn’t simple. I always think about it, it always seems to me unfair…I always think, ‘Maybe I give this guy this note and he says I never gave him money…’ How is it that this system is working, you know? There are so many things that couldn’t work in it. It actually does but I can’t do anything automatically. I can’t just go through the motions. Everything I try to understand-why does it work and how does it work?-and nothing seems to be…I always feel like I’m going on the floor that keeps just moving from side to side. I get life sea sickness, kind of.
Ramona Koval: What about the story about the young man who’s growing up, and as he’s growing up his parents get smaller…which is actually what happens in life, that parents often get smaller. Not even relatively but, in fact, in real life. But you take it to the limits.
Etgar Keret: In my story it is discovered that this family suffers from a family disease, that every centimetre the kid grows, his parents will grow shorter. In the end he will be very tall but his parents will disappear. For me, it was connected to this feeling of ultimate sacrifice that I always felt for my parents, that they never had a chance to live a normal life being brought up during the war and losing family members. They always felt that they are here to give us a chance to have a good life, and nothing mattered but what we wanted and what we needed. I love them very much for that but I really wanted all the time that they’d have some of this life too, you know? This is really a story about that because the kid doesn’t want to grow any taller if the price would be that his parents would disappear. In the end through intensive smoking he succeeded in stopping his growth, and saving his parents…they are only 15 centimetres tall but they are still alive, and they are just the right size so he can take them in his pocket everywhere and they can give him good advice, and be really happy when he kisses his first kiss, and be part of his life like my parents are part of my life.
Ramona Koval: What did your parents say about that story?
Etgar Keret: They loved it, they loved it. My father treats it as if it is a realistic story. My father reads the story and he says, ‘I remember that, I remember when it happened.’ Although he’s not 15 centimetres tall, he remembers it as something that is part of our past.
Ramona Koval: And what about that story, ‘Surprise Egg’? Does that begin with…what if a woman who didn’t know she was dying of cancer was blown up in a terrorist attack? Would it be more or less upsetting for her husband to know that she was going to die anyway, which he didn’t know before? I mean, these are pretty interesting philosophical questions about the nature of truth and the nature of suffering, and the complexities of the human heart and mind.
Etgar Keret: You know, this is one of the stories that I can bullshit about for hours because what I really think about the situation in which the pathologist operates on the suicide bombing victim and discovers that she was dying from cancer, I think it is a metaphor for Israel. I think that Israeli society is obsessed with the outside dangers and with the conflict, but we have so many problems that we are not dealing with and we are suppressing them. But I must say that there is something especially different about this story because this is maybe one of the only stories in my life that I tried to write, because usually the stories come to me, I don’t pick up the subject. I just write something and it turns out to be something. But this was a story that I wanted to write. I wanted to write a story about a suicide bombing victim, and what happened was I tried to write this story many times and I couldn’t find the right tone for it because I was all the time petrified by this kind of pathos that is always associated when you talk about the horror of living in Israel and this unbearable pain and all this stuff, and all these words came to the page. But they were not how I experienced suicide bombing, and the way that I experienced suicide bombing was…and everything else…was that you have this horrible bomb in the morning and you see all those dead people and you hope it’s nobody you know, and five minutes later you’re in your car looking for a parking spot and this arsehole takes your parking spot and you’re really pissed, you know, and you just park somewhere else. Those two things are your life but they’re completely detached from one another. You say, ‘How can I be those two people?’ To transform this kind of tone I chose my protagonist, the pathologist, because I’ve heard that a pathologist is very much like that because he is a human being but because he deals with bodies all the time, he has to have some sort of detachment, and I’ve heard that I am kind of like a pathologist in my own life, in my own country. I’m very much like a pathologist; I can make very critical observations but they won’t save the patients, they’re no good for anyone, they’re just kind of clinical truths that I can say about the situation. These kinds of contradictions are something that I feel all the time in my life.
Ramona Koval: One story which I find really brilliant, like an Escher print, where the beginning and the end are improbably woven together. It’s a story called ‘Dirt’ where there’s a story of a man opening a laundry for lonely people because he recognises that people who wash their clothes in a laundromat are usually lonely. And then the story, of the same man, kills himself in his bathroom with a bullet to the head, and his father finds him…
[reading from ‘Dirt’ by Etgar Keret-from So let’s say I’m dead now… to …a tiny sliver of hope]
Ramona Koval: This story is remarkable because it’s so short but it’s written in such a way…I’m just wondering how long it took you to write it like that because the first line is ‘So let’s say I’m dead now or I open a self-service laundrette, the first one in Israel’. So in the very first line you’ve got all possibilities, it’s going in two directions at once. So did that first line come to you like that, or did you have to work hard at getting the flow in that story?
Etgar Keret: Actually it’s a story that was the quickest for me to write in my life. It was one night, I couldn’t get to sleep, I kept moving my legs, as my girlfriend calls it, and she said, ‘Listen,’ she was really angry, ‘I can’t sleep. How about you get up? I don’t know, make yourself tea or something.’ And I just went to the computer and wrote what I felt, you know? It took me less than an hour and I didn’t change anything in it after that, I never wrote anything so fast.
Ramona Koval: What do you think of the story?
Etgar Keret: I like it. I like it because…you know, I think that there are other stories that I wrote that deal with things that are more important and crucial to my life, with relationships and my friends and everybody else, but what I like about this story is that when you try to write something that you feel, you always look at it and it’s very, very distant from what you originally meant. With this story, it’s not exactly how I felt it, but it’s close enough. It’s one of those stories that is very close to my emotion at the moment when I got up from bed and decided to write it.
Ramona Koval: Tell me about writing short, short stories, because they are miniatures, really, and they’re very satisfying. Tell me about how you decide how long you want to go.
Etgar Keret: Well, usually when I start writing I always have the feeling that I’m going to write something very, very long. I always have this feeling. I make plans for my characters’ children and grandchildren, and it feels kind of like a huge epic, and when it ends…it’s like when you have a driving lesson and your teacher breaks the car. I’m always kind of surprised when the story ends. I usually don’t have any doubts that this is its end, but even at the paragraph before that, I couldn’t predict that. I had this feeling…about two weeks ago I was in Sydney and I looked at the surfers on Bondi beach, and I had a feeling that my writing is very much like surfing for the fact that I have very little control of the stories, and I just try to catch a wave, to paddle with my hands and legs long enough and strong enough so I’ll be part of something that is me but that I don’t control in any way. I never surfed, but I have a feeling that maybe when you surf there is this moment where there is no wave or you’re out of the wave, and it’s kind of a surprise, you’re in mid-air, like in a cartoon of somebody walking over a cliff and looking down. This is how a children’s story ends, it’s kind of a complete surprise, and I know it’s the end but I really don’t understand the sense of the story when I reach this point, and then I have to reread it and maybe edit it a bit so it will make sense. But I just know it shouldn’t go on any further.
Ramona Koval: Etgar Keret, whose books, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God andThe Nimrod Flip-Out, are both published by Picador.