In Israel, Etgar Keret has published three immensely popular collections of sly absurdist fables. The mournful irony that runs throughout his work will not feel odd to American readers, but it has ruffled some feathers in his homeland, where literature still bears an epic, nation-building burden. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, released here in English translation in 2001, includes stories about a portal to Hell outside a grocery store in Uzbekistan, a man who tries to rescue his mother’s neglected uterus from a museum display, and a lonely boy who befriends his piggy bank, as well as a novella about the special sector of the afterlife reserved for suicides. It is the only book by an Israeli author to be published in the Palestinian Authority since the beginning of the latest intifada.
Keret’s latest, The Nimrod Flip-Out, available in the U.S. this month, includes stories about a talking fish, a little girl who loves all things that glitter, and the people who once lived on the moon “who could think their thoughts in any shape they wanted.” Gaza Blues, a collection coauthored by the Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef, was released in the U.K. in 2004, and Keret’s children’s book, Dad Runs Away with the Circus, came out in the U.S. the previous fall. He has also written extensively for Israeli television and film. A movie based on his novella Kneller’s Happy Campers, starring Tom Waits, just premiered at Sundance. Keret was recently in New York to visit the filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal, who is painstakingly creating a claymation film based on his stories. We spoke over pizza not far from her Williamsburg studio.
I. THE JOB WAS CODE-NAMED QUASIMODO
THE BELIEVER: You never thought you would be a writer until after you enlisted in the army. How did that come about?
ETGAR KERET: I joined the army with my best friend. He was the first one to join, so he helped transfer me into his unit. We had a bad time staying in the army. We were very, very depressed. I had an insubordination problem and they kind of kicked me around from unit to unit. I would get into trouble with my commanders.
BLVR: What kind of trouble?
EK: On the first day, in basic training, we were supposed to run a certain distance carrying this sort of small cannon, and then run back. When you came back you were supposed to stand in place, completely still. After we did this, the sergeant looked at us and said, “You, you’re moving! Now everybody has to run.” And we had to run again. Then when we got back, again somebody moved and the sergeant said, “Oh, you think it’s a joke? OK, everybody run.”
I was in very bad shape. When I was running I was really angry at this guy who kept moving. So when we got back I turned to see who it was who was so stupid, and I saw that the sergeant was talking to this spot where nobody was standing. He was just saying, “Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me?”
I said “Excuse me, Mr. Sergeant, can I talk to you a minute? It’s not for me, it’s something that would be helpful for you.” He told me to say it right there. I said, “I want to tell you privately.”
He said, “I order you to say it to me now!”
So I said, “OK, it’s just that it’s our first day in the army and you keep saying, ‘You are moving,’ but there’s no one there. It’s perfectly OK if you say, ‘I want you to run because you will be in better shape and it will help you.’ But if you start by lying about this, we’ll all be lying about everything, and we have all these months to be together, so why not come clean and just say, ‘I want you to run?’ It’s really OK.”
I had to fill my backpack with rocks and run after that. In the end I faked an asthma attack. It was all downhill from there.
BLVR: How did that lead you into writing?
EK: When my friend got me into his unit it really saved me, because I was already very depressed. He had a computer background and I didn’t, but he claimed that I was a computer genius. In the end the job wasn’t very complicated. I just had to sit with this computer and if it broke I was supposed to fix it, but it never broke. The job was code-named Quasimodo, which doesn’t sound very attractive. You were in this room completely by yourself. It was five stories underground, with no windows, nothing. Most people didn’t want to stay, because it was really a crappy job, but we kept doing it. Then my friend had a very bad emotional crisis. I was faking my way out of guard duty at the time. Because of my asthma, I would fake an attack. But I actually volunteered for guard duty just so I could stay with him. It was Yom Kippur and we were together. He seemed OK. Then he asked me to bring him something from the other room and when I left he shot himself.
It was very tough for me. “The Nimrod Flip-Out” is really a very biographical story. I had this strong sensation that he will stay with me as long as I stay nineteen years old. The moment that I grow, he will disappear, but if I can stay nineteen when I’m thirty-five and thirty-six, I can keep a connection with him.
BLVR: When did you write that?
EK: In ’97. But long before my friend committed suicide, he started talking about it. This one time, he drove me to my parents’ place, and I remember telling him, “You can’t kill yourself—I love you. I’m your friend. I’ll be miserable if you kill yourself.” He said, “You can’t say that I should stay alive because of you. I have to stay alive because of me, and I can’t find a reason to live. If you can come up with a reason why I shouldn’t kill myself, I won’t do it.”
It was one a.m. We sat in the car. I was trying to think of something to say and I couldn’t. We sat for four hours in the car. We didn’t talk. There was no radio. It was the longest four hours of my life. I had the feeling that if I went outside I would lose my chance to say something, but I didn’t have anything to say. So in the end I opened the door and I said goodbye.
BLVR: You couldn’t come up with a reason.
EK: I couldn’t come up with something that would make sense to him. I couldn’t articulate anything. The first story I ever wrote, “Pipes,” was a way of trying to answer him, trying to say that you have to find a way out. For me the way out was stories, but when I was in that car I still didn’t know the way out for myself. It’s not that I was very happy in the army. I was heavily fucked-up then too. I said to him, “There must be something,” but I couldn’t say anything else. Since then I haven’t stopped writing.
BLVR: How long after his death did you write “Pipes”?
EK: Two weeks after he died.
BLVR: And you were still stationed underground?
EK: I was in the same place when I wrote it. It was the place he killed himself.
BLVR: Did it surprise you to find yourself writing a story?
EK: When I finished writing “Pipes,” I wasn’t sure if it was a story. I asked some of the people I knew. They all said “It’s too short to be a story.” They said they didn’t think it would interest people. They said, “It’s not bad, and we like it because we know you, but we don’t know whether we’d like it if we didn’t know you.” I kept on writing stories, but I really didn’t know if they were stories or just a way to cope. I never tried to publish them.
BLVR: When did you first attempt to publish?
EK: When I started studying in the university after the army, I was in a program where they gave me a stipend. I had a problem waking up early, so I was always late for my morning classes. My mentor said to me, “Listen, they’re concerned about the fact that you don’t come to early classes and they’re talking about maybe taking away your stipend. If you can find something that you can claim you do at night—if you can say you’re a political activist or something, we can offer that as an excuse.” I told him I was writing stories. He said, “No problem. I can give them to a literature professor and he’ll write a note explaining that they’re postmodern or subversive.” I said OK. He gave my stories to this professor who wrote exactly what he said. I kept my stipend. A year later that professor called me and said, “I don’t know if you remember, but a year ago I wrote a letter for you and I just got a job at a publishing house. I wonder if you have any more stories?” I brought him some stuff and he took it.
BLVR: He published them as a book?
EK: Yeah. Everything that happens to me happens by mistake like that. All my life I was very mathematical.
I liked reading books, but I hated the humanities, except for philosophy, maybe. Before the army I was supposed to go to a technical college and study to be an engineer. My brother is a computer genius. I was always sure I was going to study computer engineering and we would open a business together. In the end I find myself in a completely different place.
II. REMEMBRANCE DAY
BLVR: Politics appears only in the background of your stories. The grand historical narratives and myths that Israel tells itself about itself are just not taken seriously—like in “Rabin’s Dead,” which turns out to be about a cat named Rabin that’s been hit by a scooter. Has that upset people in Israel?
EK: “Rabin’s Dead” made people angry. It’s basically about two kids that want to name a cat after Rabin. If you name a geriatric hospital in which people pee on themselves all day the Rabin Hospital, it would be OK, but if you call a cat Rabin, it’s problematic. In Israel, people are very, very sensitive to taboos. But the moment there is a taboo, there is an idea of how you should deal with it and how you should talk about it, and it turns into cliché. To talk about a memory—let’s say the memory of Rabin, or the memory of the Holocaust, or the memory of people who died in the war, in the army—those three things are kind of nationalized. But my parents are Holocaust survivors, I voted for and believed in Rabin, and my best friend died in the army, so they are also mine, so to try to make these things your own is something that eventually gets people pissed.
When my story “Siren” was made part of the high school curriculum, a group of teachers said, “We will not teach this story.” They gave two reasons. One was that you cannot show someone who walks during the siren in a positive light. The second was that the teachers believed that most of the students are not aware of the fact that they’re making a choice not to walk during the siren. I said to them, “If they’re not aware of the fact that they’re choosing not to walk during the siren, it becomes meaningless, because you’re reducing it to a reflex, like when you whistle to a dog and it sits. You have to know that you can choose to walk in order to make the choice not to walk.”
BLVR: In “Siren” the kid is actually having a sincere experience of Remembrance Day. He’s trying to report on some other kids who’ve stolen the bicycle of the janitor, who is a Holocaust survivor. At the same time, the siren on Remembrance Day is just this sort of banal thing that saves him from getting his ass kicked—it’s just there in the background. Without being pious, it’s a serious story.
EK: I think the fact that it offended so many high school teachers is very worrisome. The study of the Holocaust in Israel is all about very strong, petrified symbols. The last thing you would want is for reality to dirty those symbols. Nobody, for example, teaches you in school to make a connection between the Holocaust and the crazy neighbor you have upstairs with the numbers tattooed to his wrist who screams at you not to play with the ball. You hate him. He’s an asshole. And he’s the Holocaust. But it’s like two parallel worlds.
When my father told me about the Holocaust, he always said, “They were the worst years of my life, but that was my life. The first girl I kissed, the first cigarette I smoked, was during those years. It was a shitty life, but it was life.” When they teach about the Holocaust, when they deal with its memory, they don’t allow it to be profane. Jewish people did stand-up routines about the Holocaust during the Holocaust. They would talk about it. They would write about it. They reacted as you react to anything, but now the system wants to make it somehow outside of life. They say, “If you were not there, you will never be able to understand,” and when you’re a kid, you say, “OK, so I’m excused. Why should I make any effort?”
My father always said to me, “All the things that I went through during the Holocaust are within your spectrum of emotion. You know what it is to be afraid. You know what it is to be cold. You know what it is to be hungry. Maybe you’ll never be as afraid or as cold or as hungry as I was, but I didn’t feel any emotions that you don’t know.”
But it’s like suddenly they build a highway through your living room. They take something that is part of you and say, “It’s not yours. Do it like this and shut up.”
When my friend died in the army, at the funeral a colonel talked about him. He said that he was brave, that he was one of the best soldiers ever. He was a coward and he was one of the worst soldiers ever, but you’re not allowed to keep your personality if you die in the army. You become a kind of tool.
III. ISRAEL AS A PETRI DISH
BLVR: I read a piece in the Guardian not long ago by Linda Grant, who had been living in Israel for four months and painted a very different picture of Israel from the one we get on CNN. She wrote of claustrophobia, defeat and powerlessness, of complete disillusion with the Zionist dream, primarily because of the intifada and the corruption scandals and all the divisiveness within Israeli society. When I went back to read your stories, I felt something similar.
EK: I think that any authentic feeling one has of life should be a feeling of defeat. It’s a losing game. You’re going to die. Civilization is going to end. Our society is in decline, and we should feel OK about it because Roman society was in decline and before it the Assyrian one was, and they disappeared off this earth and we will disappear too. If you really grasp what is going on, in some sort of way, you should feel some desperation. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t love your life or try to improve it.
In this sense, it’s hard for me to know the differences between disliking Israel, disliking the region, and disliking human nature in general, because the rhetoric used in Israeli politics and in many political systems says, “Life is good, everything’s great, but those guys are assholes.” Many of the problems in Israel are not unique regional problems. They’re widespread human problems that in Israel are kind of extreme. Being xenophobic or irrationally violent—the Middle East didn’t invent this.
But if you ask me if I’m disillusioned by the Zionist idea, I must say that I was born disillusioned by the Zionist idea. Maybe my parents have been disillusioned, but I never shared the Zionist idea. If you ask me if I’m disillusioned by the corruption, I’m not very surprised by the corruption. If you ask me if I accept the situation, I don’t accept it. If you ask me if it could be better, yeah, it could be better. If you ask me if in the end it will be good, I’ll say to you that in the end it will be bad. There is no contradiction there. If I have any message to try to pass, it’s that the only way to deal with this is to be able to contain the ambiguity, to be able to live in an extreme, harsh reality and still not dehumanize any group of people in it.
One thing I can say about what this woman wrote in the Guardian—you could say the same thing about the U.S. I always claim that Israel is like a petri dish or a laboratory for what’s going to happen in the world. The thing that can get you desperate in Israel can get you desperate all over the world.
BLVR: One story in your new collection, “Surprise Egg,” is about a pathologist who performs an autopsy on a woman killed in a suicide bombing. He discovers that she would have died within a month from an undiagnosed cancer and debates telling her grieving husband. It’s unusual in your work in that it’s very explicitly about a suicide bombing.
EK: But also it’s not funny. It’s not nostalgic or cute or anything. It’s almost philosophical. For me, it was a better communication with my present, because usually when I write I communicate well with my past. I can summon up things that happened to me when I was twenty-two years old, but not things that are happening to me now, and I desperately need writing to solve my problems.
When I was kid, I never cried. Whenever I got hurt, I would say to myself, “I know what my parents went through.” The other kid would be punching me really hard, saying, “He’s not even crying!” I didn’t want to get upset. My mother owned a fabric store, so all my childhood I was in the fabric store. When I was three or four years old, one thing I knew best was to compliment old, fat ladies. They were my mother’s clients. I would go, “Oh, Mrs. So-and-so, this fabric matches the green of your eyes.” I was always considerate and very aware of other people. I’ve always had a very developed superego. I also had a very powerful id, but there was no ego in the middle. So writing was always like letters sent from the id to the superego, saying, “What’s going on here?” What I loved about writing was that I was totally weightless. I was amazed at the fact that I could be myself without being afraid that anyone would get hurt.
IV. PEACE WITH THE NORWEGIANS
BLVR: How did Gaza Blues come about?
EK: I met Samir El-Youssef at a convention of Israeli and Palestinian writers in Zurich. There were a lot of the old-school writers, Israeli and Palestinian, and most of them talked about finding a solution from a very different ideological perspective. Samir and I were both talking in a very pragmatic voice, saying, “We don’t give a fuck what the solution is. We want to negotiate anything that will let us live. We don’t care if it’s fair or not.”
When you say that in Israel, it’s not very popular, but for a Palestinian to say that, you must be very brave. It’s not that Samir is pro-Israeli—he’s coming from a refugee camp in Lebanon. He’s very, very critical. But his point of view on, say, the right of return, is, “Do I stick with something that doesn’t seem to work and that causes people to die? OK, I’ll give up on this.” Which is exactly my stand on Jerusalem: “If this is the problem, then it’s not actually a problem. So I need a passport to visit my sister? That’s fine.” I feel a strong affinity to Samir. We’re about the same age. We both grew up in families that have very firm ideological points of view, about which we’re both critical.
After the Passover bombing, when Sharon went into the occupied territories for the first time, Samir called me and said, “Listen, we’ve got to do something.” I said, “Yes, but I don’t want to do another useless petition.” And he said, “No, I have an idea. Let’s do a book together. There are so many people who read you and never get close to reading me. Jews would read my stuff and Arabs who would never pick up a book by an Israeli maybe would read your stories. We can maybe try to humanize both sides in a situation where it’s very easy to dehumanize both sides.”
I don’t think it’s going to have a huge effect. We just wanted to do something small, because there’s something very clichéd about politics. Most moral statements that you can make, people know them already. If I make signs that say, “Killing people is bad. Stop raping women. You should be ashamed of yourself,” I’m not giving people any new information. But if you can take people who regard the situation as simple and show them something more complex—if you can confuse them and introduce some ambiguity to their point of view—that’s the best you can do. And if it doesn’t help, at least it will make us feel better.
BLVR: Is it only available in the U.K.?
EK: Yeah, and it’s a very small publisher. I don’t think that many people will read it.
BLVR: Which book of yours was published in the P.A.?
EK: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God. That’s also a funny story. I was invited to Norway to take part in a convention, a post–September 11 kind of thing with Tariq Ali and people like that. I was supposed to be on a panel with two Palestinian writers. They were very, very nice, but both of them refused to be on a panel with me. They said they would speak with me, but they wouldn’t speak with me onstage. They asked me, “Do you understand?” I said, “I don’t understand. I will respect it, but I don’t understand it.”
Jacques Derrida was supposed to give the closing speech. He discovered by accident that I was not on the panel. Instead of talking about September 11, he started talking about that. He was very angry at the Palestinian writers and ashamed of them for not sitting with me on the panel. He started screaming at them. It was very funny, very strange. After it was finished, he said, “If you don’t sit with him, who do you want to sit with? Do you want to sit with Sharon? Why did you come here? To make peace with the Norwegians?”
There was a big fuss over it. Then because everybody was Norwegian and they wanted to find a nice solution, they made this offer that we all eat breakfast together. At the breakfast, Derrida asked me if I had a copy of my book and I gave him a copy in English. One of the Palestinian writers asked me for a copy too and I said, “Oh, I had only one.” And he had this expression that said, “Yeah, sure—for Jacques Derrida you had a copy but not for me, because I’m Palestinian.” So I took his address and I sent him a copy. I didn’t hear from him for a few months, but then he wrote to me and he said, “I love your book, and I translated it, and I’m going to publish it here if it’s OK with you.”
I said, “Yes, of course.”
BLVR: He had already translated it?
EK: Yeah. And he translated it from English. It’s the only translation I have that is not from Hebrew, which is very ironic, that you need a mediator between Hebrew and Arabic. When he did it, it was very, very dangerous. Every time he was supposed to print it there was a curfew, or there was a missile attack, or something. In the end, a week before he had scheduled the printing, he died. His name was Izzat al-Ghazzawi. He died of a heart attack. His story is very sad. He was from Ramallah. He was very pro-peace and his son was killed by the IDF. And he always tried to do all kinds of initiatives and this was one of them.
I once went to France and they brought me this guy who was doing a sequential translation for me for the radio. His Hebrew was very bad, and his interpreting was horrible. I don’t know French, but every time I would say Raymond Carver, he would say something like ‘Robert Kramer.’ But he was very nice, very young. Afterward I talked to him and he said, “I tried to move to Israel because I’m Jewish and very patriotic, but it was too fucking scary. It was too dangerous. You’re so brave, living there.”
I said, “It’s not so dangerous, really.” I asked him what he did there. And then I understood: he was a pizza delivery guy in a settlement area, which means you ride your bike and people shoot at you, which is fucking dangerous.
BLVR: Probably doesn’t pay all that well for the trouble.
EK: Yeah: “Come on man, I know it took thirty-two minutes and not thirty minutes, but they shot me in the shoulder—give me a bigger tip!” He really had the perception that all of Israel was like being a pizza-delivery boy in a settlement. So there are all kinds of people. Some of them are stupid. Some don’t have a choice. Some of them are smart but are completely wrong. Some of them were born into these realities. I try to stress when I do political debates that there is no contradiction between having very firm ideas of what you want to do and still being able to understand where the other is coming from—to humanize them. In Israel if you support one idea, you dehumanize one group, and if you support another idea, you dehumanize the other. It’s completely tribal. When people read my stuff, they say that I’m confused or I don’t care about things, because if you talk about the reality in Israel at the moment and you introduce any ambiguity to it, people think you are doing something wrong, that this is not the way you’re supposed to use the rhetoric, like you’re an opera singer who whispers. But the whole idea of literature is that you want to break clichés.