Etgar Keret: Israel’s urban challenge

Israeli writer-director Etgar Keret, 43, said Jewish people usually gave their children names with meanings.

Keret’s first name means challenge. His last name means urban. “So my name means urban challenge,” he said.

He explained this in a prelude as to why his short stories are mostly based in urban settings. Keret is Israel’s best-selling short story writer who writes absurd and humorous tales of urban life in Israel. His works have been published in 30 languages and are included in Israel’s high school curriculum.

Having lived in Tel Aviv all his life, an urban life is the only one he knows, he says. “I think there’s something really urban about my mind… I love nature. But the most interesting thing for me is people. That’s why an urban setting is something that I like because you condense people together in small spaces. It heightens tension. It kind of pumps it out. So I like writing about urban life. And it’s also the only life I l know,” he said.

Keret was in Ubud, Bali, recently for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. When it was suggested he would find Jakarta interesting, he said that his visa for Indonesia
only allowed him to travel to Bali for the festival. Coming from a country that does not have a bilateral relationship with Indonesia, Keret jokingly says: “I was born with the wrong passport!”

He was almost could not attend the festival and had to wait five days in Bangkok for his pass, “But I’m really glad I made it,” he said. When he received the invitation to the festival, he said he was very excited. “Because [Indonesia] is a part of the world that I can’t travel to normally. I was very curious,” he said.

Sitting in an Ubud restaurant over a plate of Greek salad, Keret said that one of the purposes of his writing was to humanize Israel in the eyes of people. “Not to make us saints,” he points out “but to make us human.

“Regardless of all the trouble that I have in my country, we are people. Some of us are better, some of us are worse,” he said.

Keret, a son of a holocaust survivor, has for a long time been a spokesman for peace, writing witty and poignant criticism in his op-eds about the war. In a 2007 interview, he once said that his family was like a microcosm of Israel. Keret, the youngest of three siblings went into the arts. His stories do not show any political leanings, never putting things in black or white. His brother, currently living in Thailand, is a peace activist who founded the legalizing marijuana movement in
Israel. His sister became ultra-orthodox. Her 11 children are forbidden on religious grounds to read Keret’s graphic novels, which he dedicated to them.

Keret said his wish was to reach out to different communities. “Just so they have a glimpse of how [Israelis] live,” he said.

His short story collections have entered bookstores in Muslim countries. “I’m the only Israeli writer since the second intifada [whose works are] translated and published in Palestine,” he said. His books are published in Turkey as well.

Keret’s works have been translated in to 30 languages but the Indonesian language is yet to be one of them. “Nothing would make me happier to have an Indonesian one,” he said.

Reading Keret’s short stories, one sees the high-paced energy of urban life situations in his flowing sentences. But Keret’s surreal imaginations are what make his stories special.

During the festival opening, Keret read out his short story Fatso that tells of a man whose girlfriend morphs into a hairy man with no neck who wears a gold ring on his pinkie finger.

Fatso is a quirky love letter to Keret’s wife, Shira Geffen. They live in Tel Aviv with a 5-year-old son. Keret has co-directed the film Jellyfish with Geffen, based on a story that she wrote. The film went on to win best first feature at Cannes Film Festival.

Keret’s wild imagination in Fatso is only one example of how Keret’s mind explores the absurd. In Second Chance, he tells a story about a service that allows people to experience events and emotions that would occur if they had taken a different path in their lives simultaneously to the life they experience now. In Nimrod’s Flip Out, which also became the title of one of his short-story collections, he tells a story about how Nimrod’s suicide affected three friends who all experience mental episodes.

Keret said that writing had taught him to learn more about himself. Keret said he was an angry person when he was young. “I couldn’t articulate it but I had feelings that maybe I was being self-destructive. I just wanted to do something with my life. But I didn’t know how to do it. It was very frustrating,” he said.

Keret said the fact that he did not know what he wanted to be when he grew up “stoked deep fear in me”.

“Aggression usually comes from fear and incompetence. And I think writing taught me to be less afraid. And I became less angry. I know more about myself because of it.”

Keret has published his latest collection of short stories this year called Suddenly, A Knock on The Door.

He said that he would be traveling and has yet to think about his next project. “Between projects, I’m free falling. I don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

“There is something about writing. It’s like a gift. You can’t force people to give you a gift. If it comes, it comes,” he said.

Even now, Keret said, he felt uneasy about calling himself a “writer” on forms that ask his profession. “It’s what I do now. I don’t know if I will do it later. You know it’s like somebody who’s happy. They’re happy now. But who knows if they will be happy later.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Sat, October 30 2010

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