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In combat with life

The conflict in Israel is a great resource if you’re looking to write a story, THEO PANAYIDES is told by an Israeli published in 32 languages

“I experience reality as something very extreme, and very quirky,” says Israeli author Etgar Keret, sitting outside on a warm day at the Hilton Park in Nicosia. Here’s one example, drawn (he says) from life: a suicide bomber got on a minibus in Israel a few years ago, intending to blow himself and the passengers to kingdom come – but, at the last moment, he panicked. He changed his mind. He wanted to live. Not wanting to abort the mission, he took his ammunition belt off, activated the device and threw the belt in the air. The resulting explosion was so powerful that it left him blind – but he ‘only’ managed to kill one man and his dog. The man was Israel’s sole supplier and trainer of guide dogs for the blind, the dog an animal he was transporting to a customer. “So the guy made himself blind,” concludes Etgar, “and also killed the only person who could get him a dog!”

Another example, drawn from his own work. I leaf through his books of short stories at the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation, where Etgar and his wife Shira Geffen are giving a talk, and note a story called, in the original Hebrew, ‘Shlomo Homo Kos El Omo’ – a title Etgar translates, when asked, as “Shlomo, the gay, f*** his mother” (it’s been rendered into English, more gently, as ‘Slimy Shlomo is a Homo’). The story is extremely short, all about an unpopular kid who goes through his schooldays burdened with the titular nickname (Etgar’s trick is to drop in the nickname very naturally, as if it were his real name) – but in fact that’s not all, because the story is based on a real boy whom Etgar knew at school, and ‘Slimy Shlomo’ is now a billionaire! He’s the head of a big NASDAQ company, and when someone comes to him looking for a job he likes to open Etgar’s book and read them the story – whether to gauge their reaction or just to show them how extreme and quirky Life can be sometimes.

‘Shlomo Homo’ comes from Etgar’s first collection of stories, published when he was 25 (he’s now 46). “In my first collection I wrote many stories about soldiers, and many stories about kids,” he recalls, because the two groups have something in common: they “don’t decide their own fate”. This is more than just idle speculation – because Etgar was a soldier himself at that time, doing his three years of National Service, and deeply unhappy: “They wanted me to stop being a human being, and start being a soldier”. He had one good friend in the army – “Both of us were kind of strange characters, we had our own visions, our own ideas” – and was shocked when the other man killed himself, unable to take the endless pressure. But the army also got him writing, which was never the plan. Etgar had studied Maths in high school, and was planning to become an engineer; “I always loved reading, but I never wrote anything”.

Two decades later, his stories have been translated into 32 languages and won rave reviews. “The New York Times said I’m a genius,” he notes matter-of-factly, adding that he doesn’t believe it (he cites the drug dealer’s sage advice in Scarface: “Don’t get high on your own supply”). Yet it’s strange how the Army changed his life, as well as the lives of his two siblings. His sister wasn’t religious at all when she joined up – but she met her fiancé in the Army and the fiancé got killed in the war in Lebanon, after which she started asking herself “existential questions” and became very devout. His brother was a right-winger – but he joined an anti-aircraft unit, felt very guilty after shooting down a Syrian plane, “and after that he became a very extreme left-wing activist” which he remains to this day.

profile2This raises a point, the elephant in the room in our conversation – and that point is Israel. Etgar and Shira’s lecture (talking mostly about Jellyfish, the 2007 film they co-directed which won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) is part of a charm offensive, actually the third in a series called ‘A Cultural Journey to Israel’ which is organised and supported by the Israeli Embassy. It’s no secret that this sudden influx of visiting artists is part of our newfound alliance over natural gas. It’s also no secret that it makes some people uncomfortable. Israel, after all, is an occupying power, much like the Turks here in Cyprus. Our sympathies lie much more naturally with the Palestinians. Yet, talking to Etgar, it’s also clear that Israel isn’t as homogeneous as it may appear – that in fact it’s a seething cauldron of competing agendas. “At its best, it’s multi-cultural,” he explains wryly. “At its worst, it feels like a civil war”.

Take the Keret family, for instance. “I’m a left-wing liberal, but I come from a family where my father was moderate right-wing, my brother is extreme anarchist anti-Zionist left-wing – he’s against the country of Israel, the idea of the country of Israel – and my sister believes in theocracy”. The sister used to be a settler, and the brother always joked when they went to visit her that “this is the only time I go across the 1967 border and don’t return handcuffed in a police car”. There are tensions between secular and religious Jews – the latter have been known to burn down bus stops that display pictures of women in swimsuits – tensions between Sephardic Jews and those of European descent, tensions between Jews and Israeli Arabs, tensions between new immigrants (Russians, Ethiopians) and the older ones. Yet the country – like the Keret family – somehow manages to get along. “Ideology is very important,” concludes Etgar, “but emotional connection and the goodness of people is more important”.

And of course there’s an upside – because the constant friction is great for writers. “A good story is always about a conflict, and in Israel, you go out from your apartment and in five minutes you see people arguing in the street. The tranquillity of places like Cyprus is amazing for life, but it would be very difficult for me to write here. I’m sure that you have your own problems,” he adds as I start to protest, “but it’s not like in Israel, where you go outside your house with your kid and they shoot a missile at you”.

But surely that never actually happens?

Etgar looks pained. Last December, he replies hotly, “I found myself with my son, lying on the pavement and me covering his body, and missiles exploding in the air”. He wrote a story about it that appeared in the New Yorker, “just [Google] my name and the word ‘pastrami’”. Later on, I do, and discover a short, delightful piece – funny, wry, well-crafted – about Etgar and Shira getting seven-year-old Lev to lie on the ground during a missile attack by playing an impromptu game called Pastrami Sandwich (they were the bread, Lev the pastrami). Did it happen exactly like that? Maybe. Or maybe he just took the raw material of experience and alchemised it into Art, like he’d done with ‘Slimy Shlomo’.

Either way, Etgar Keret’s work tends to be intensely personal, bursting out in colloquial speech and characters with whom he identifies to the point of feeling defensive when critics call them crazy or weird (“I feel like they’re saying about myself that I’m crazy or weird”). What’s he like as a person? ‘Are you an observer, or fairly active?’ I ask, mentally noting that most writers tend to be the former. “I’m very active,” he replies instantly – and that’s how he comes across, small and soulful with a puckish face, tousled hair studded with silver, eyes that squint a little and eyebrows that make him look angry. He writes stories, makes films and is also politically active, staunchly against the present government (though it hasn’t stopped them funding his visit to Cyprus). He wrote about the protests in Israel a couple of years ago, interviewed Prime Minister Netanyahu for Haaretz (getting the PM to admit that he saw “no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, which annoyed his friends in the US State Department) and has done op-ed pieces for the New York Times and The Guardian. “I’m always involved, in my own strange and weird way.”

You could say he’s not ‘really’ a writer, more a passionate man who looks around, looks within himself, and writes what he sees. He doesn’t even plan his stories, simply finds a convenient starting-point and ploughs right in. “If I know exactly how a story is going, then it’s much less exciting for me to write it. I think my strongest incentive to write a story is basically that I want to know what’s going on – so, when my character opens a door, I peek over his shoulder and try to see what’s in the room. I don’t know what’s in the room”. Sometimes there’s nothing in the room; for every story he writes, there are at least three more which he stops halfway through. “When you finish a story it’s like someone who performs a magic trick but he doesn’t know how he made it, he can’t repeat it,” marvels Etgar. “It’s like saying ‘Where did this story come from?’. And I always say that my stories are much wiser and more intelligent than I am.”

profile3Maybe so; but he’s getting wiser. “Even when I was 35, I saw myself as a child,” he admits at one point – not in terms of life experience or emotional development, certainly, but he always took the child’s point of view when writing a story because that was how he felt, like a child (or a soldier) still resentful, still oppressed, still determined to decide his own fate. “My default situation was to be in a combat with Life,” he says (Etgar talks about “Life” a lot, and always makes it sound like it comes with a capital ‘L’). “I was always in a kind of conflict or fight with Life. I would always say ‘This is not fair. Why do you do this?’”.

Then he and Shira had Lev, and something changed. “Suddenly, when you become a parent, you become a sort of interface between your son and the world. And when he asks you ‘Why do people do that?’ you don’t want to tell him ‘Because they are assholes, and Life sucks’. You need to find some kind of narrative that will be positive, and at the same time that you believe in”. To say that he’s ‘mellowed’ would be simplistic; after all he was never simply angry – he was pugnacious, argumentative, stubbornly rational. Even now, as a parent, he’ll always argue a point with Lev, whereas his wife tends to fall back on ‘Do it because I’m your mother’. But maybe Etgar Keret has become more resigned with age, still seeing the craziness of Life but more inclined to reconcile himself – because, after all, everyone has their reasons.

One more story, set once again during the spate of suicide bombings in the early 00s. Etgar and Shira were in a café in Tel Aviv, feeling tense and nervous. It was winter, and outside it was raining. Suddenly, a man ran into the café; “You could easily see that he was Arabic”. He was wearing a big coat, and there seemed to be something under his coat. His wife (says Etgar) has excellent reflexes, and immediately ducked under the table, assuming the man to be a bomber. The man just looked at her sadly, then took off his coat “and he was just very fat”. Mortified, Shira asked Etgar to go and apologise, which he did. Please excuse my wife, he explained to the stranger, she’s had a stressful day. The man shook his head: “She’s lucky,” he replied. “She had one stressful day – but I have to pass an entire winter being a fat Arab with a big coat!”.

Etgar chuckles: he can empathise with everyone in that story – his wife, who was frightened, but also the corpulent Arab waiting sadly for summer. What can you do? It’s Life, he shrugs, Life with a capital L: “There is something in the reality that we live that is tragi-comic”. And extreme. And quirky.

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