In Etgar Keret's Memoir, a Psychic Map of Modern Israel

'The Seven Good Years,' published in English, spotlights the convoluted family history and challenging reality of life as a cosmopolitan literary star.

Lisa Schwarzbaum
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Israeli author Etgar Keret.
Israeli author Etgar Keret.Credit: Tali Shani
Lisa Schwarzbaum

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

To read the work of Etgar Keret is to love a world only he can see, a universe askew: A girl spends her childhood sitting on top of a refrigerator; a husband comes home to find his wife glued to the ceiling; a human couple gives birth to a horse; a woman discovers a zipper under her lover’s tongue, and when she pulls it, a whole other man pops out – a fellow named Jurgen who has “a goatee, meticulously shaped sideburns and an uncircumcised penis.”

That last story, “Unzipping,” appears in Keret’s 2010 story collection, “Suddenly A Knock On the Door.” (The English-language translation came out in 2012.) With a universal hook like that, no wonder his is the first book by an Israeli writer to be translated into Vietnamese.

The absurdities are deadpan and off-speed enough to delight the sensibilities of the public – the radio audience for “This American Life” – where, as it happens, Keret is a regular contributor. But it is the Israeliness in his soul that sharpens the edge of every zig and zag his stories take, and deepens the emotional power of even the most casual story of friendship, or romantic connection, or the crazy mechanics of sex.

Israeli Jewishness in all its assets and debits shapes his kishkes, as surely as Russian Jewishness is permanently lodged in those of Gary Shteyngart, Keret’s literary brother in frequent-flyer miles, no matter how far either man travels as a cosmopolitan literary star. An intimacy with the uncertainty of existence – born of familiarity with war and terrorism, of army service in all its tedium and fear, of parents who survived the Shoah – anchors even the wildest of Keret’s tales. As the rabbis tell us, there are no hipsters in foxholes.

Etgar Keret, with his father and son. Photo by Jonathan Bloom

I can only imagine – but I’m sure I am right – that Israeli readers recognize authenticity in the head spaces of his everyman and -woman characters named Tzlil and Oshri and Netta and Orit. I can confidently attest – and I’m sure I am right – that non-Israelis are awed as much as delighted by the matter-of-fact humor of a man whose son, Lev, was born during a bomb attack, with nurses running to the ER to treat the injured.

Keret recounts Lev’s auspicious arrival in “The Seven Good Years” – the span, with all its biblical implications, between the birth of his son and the death of his father from cancer. The volume (out June 16) is billed as a memoir, his first book of non-fiction. As a further distinction, it is not, for the moment, being published in Hebrew or in Israel.

In an interview last year with Haaretz the author said that given the intimacy with which he writes about his family, he wanted to create a bit of a linguistic and geographic shield, both for their privacy and for himself. (Anyway, people, makes access just a click away.)

The grief, admiration, pride, honor, ambivalence and love exposed in these stories justify his decision – if that’s what he needs to speak these words about comforting one another in the shared act of survival, from father to son to grandson.

Hybrid memoir

“The Seven Good Years,” with its cover illustration of a dove of peace cocked for launching from the kind of slingshot endorsed by David against Goliath, is a hybrid memoir. The heart of the book beats in the family stories about birth and death and life in between. The rest is riffs on the stuff of everyday getting-on-with-it, some of which originally appeared in American publications including The New York Times Magazine and Tablet: Here are charming but unremarkable little sketches about the annoyance of telemarketers, the weirdness of taxicab drivers, the pleasures of an upgraded long-distance flight, the middle-aged-man challenges of trying a yoga class.

The cover of Keret's new book.

Many of these fillers describe the oddnesses and incidents that result from Keret’s life in the air and on the road as a famous author. He – like his buddy Shteyngart – spends a lot of time at book festivals, fairs, panels and awards fests around the world. And there are, to be sure, particularly piquant challenges to being an Israeli Jew – even one who is a famous writer – in Indonesia, or Hungary, or France. But these travelogue pauses really serve as places for the reader to catch a breath. Because Keret in full voice – unadorned, with no time for whimsy – is quietly stunning.

Indeed, two of his most powerful entries have neither to do with his father nor his son, but with his older brother and sister; taken as a trio, Keret and his siblings, in all their profound differences of how daily life can be lived, constitute a kind of psychic map of modern Israel.

In “Idol Worship,” little Etgar looks up to the charismatic brother seven years his senior who at 10 had already skipped two grades, at 12 had found God and went to a religious boarding school, and at 15 had left religion and found math and computer science. Keret continued looking up while his big brother went on to fight in the Lebanon War while opposing it (and spending time in military courts); and to moving to Thailand, where he now lives with his second wife, devoted to activism for social and political change.

“ Apart from the love we’ve always felt for each other, the only constant in our relationship has been the seven-year difference between us,” the younger brother writes. Yet when Etgar, his wife Shira Geffen and their son visit Thailand and at one point take an elephant tour, that same younger brother is moved anew by “that pride in my big brother and the hope that when I grew up, I’d be a little bit like him, able to drive elephants through virgin forests without ever having to raise my voice.”

Meanwhile, in the devastating story “My Lamented Sister,” he opens with this: “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.” His sister is the happy mother of 11 children, and he is happy that she is happy, but non-dogmatic bewilderment mixes with his love: “The fact that my sister will never read a single story of mine upsets me, I admit, but the fact that I don’t observe the Sabbath or keep kosher upsets her even more.”

“The Seven Good Years” is graced by Keret’s ability to apply a light touch even to dark topics. He comes, after all, from a part of the world where parents casually consider their children’s future military service when those children are still in diapers.

His mother is the sole survivor of her family in Warsaw; as a girl, she saw her mother and brother killed in front of her, and he is particularly attuned to his legacy, at ease with the ghosts of loss. Yet it is as “a beautiful redhead” in Tel Aviv that Keret describes her in “Love at First Whiskey,” toasting his parents’ long marriage with a vignette that is both lovely and abounding in the kind of beguiling non-fiction unpredictability he would go on to make his fictional signature.

The story goes that as a working man in his late 20s in Tel Aviv, Keret’s father would carouse between projects, drinking and listening to gypsy music. (Earlier still, he lived in southern Italy, buying rifles from the local Mafia for his fellow members of the Irgun, lodged for free in a Mafia-owned whorehouse and “that, it seems,” writes his son, “was the best time of his life.”)

Anyway, the story goes that one night, drunk, Keret’s father urinated against a French Embassy wall. The authorities were called and Keret’s father was stuffed into a police car, but in trying to round up the gypsy musicians as well, one musician’s pet monkey bit a cop, and in the melee that ensued Keret’s father got out of the car to enjoy the ruckus, whereupon he spotted Keret’s mother. And that, pretending to be an investigating inspector, he took down her address and showed up at her door the next day, sober and carrying flowers.

Keret ends the entry with a nuzzle of love to his own wife as he describes how the two of them discussed the way couples meet as a clue to their futures. He reminisces that they fell in love because of a misheard phrase: She said, you’ll never get a taxi; he thought she said, kiss me.

The husband recounts that his wife then commented, “We’re also like the way we met. Our life is one thing, and you always reinvent it to be something else more interesting. That’s what writers do, right?”

In “The Seven Good Years,” Etgar Keret contemplates life with no reinvention, and the tale is mesmerizing just the way it is. That’s also what writers do, right?

The writer, a former critic at Entertainment Weekly, is a freelance journalist in New York.

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