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A conversation with Etgar Keret

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08/24/2010

A conversation with Etgar Keret photo

Author Etgar Keret, well-known throughout Israel and the world for his short stories, graphic novels and scriptwriting for film and television, has been called the voice of young Israel. He is in Chicago as part of a visiting writers' program at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, supported in part through the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago's Israel Studies Project. 

This Thursday, Keret will deliver a lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is free and open to the public, at 6pm in the SAIC Auditorium. 

Anticipating his visit, JUF News’s Arts and Entertainment columnist Jan Lisa Huttner called Keret at home for some personal thoughts and shared her interview with Oy!Chicago:

Jan Lisa Huttner: In past interviews, you’ve named Sholem Aleichem as a major influence. What’s the connection?
Etgar Keret: I'm a Jewish writer in the skin of an Israeli writer. I'm seen as the ultimate Israeli writer because I use the Hebrew language in a very contemporary way—colloquial speech that is very dynamic. But the personality of the soul behind it is a very Jewish soul, not the classic Israeli soul.
 
Israel has amazing writers, but none of them is known for his sense of humor. So the most intuitive argument that I have for being “a Jewish writer” is that my stories are funny in that reflexive sense that really defines Jewish humor.

I think people usually write about the things that they don't have, and what we don't have in Israel is that sense of continuity, because of being a new country with an undefined and insecure future. So we write mostly epics that will give us the sensation that life is more than a segmented moment.

If you read A Tale of Love & Darkness (Amoz Oz) or A Trip to the Edge of the Millennium (A.B. Yehoshua) or whatever, this is basically the classic Israeli way of writing—stories that go through centuries. We don't have an Israeli Sholem Aleichem because we are a country of novelists, not a country of short story writers. There is no Israeli Raymond Carver or other people who are known for their short fiction.

So when I look for people that I feel are close to me, it’s much more common for me to find them among young Jewish-American writers than among contemporary Israeli ones. I really feel closer to Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander than to Israeli writers of my generation.

And yet, in another interview, you described yourself as a member of Israel’s “second generation” (referencing the Holocaust)?
In Israel and in most of the most of the word, I'm not seen as a second generation writer. I’m seen as this kind of young, hip, crazy guy. Some of my readers are not even excited I'm Israeli, and in Israel, many people think I’m Sephardi because of my family name. (My parents changed it to Keret, but it used to be something else before my father came to Israel.)

It's not that I'm, let's say, a writer like Savyon Liebrecht in which the presence of the Holocaust is very central in most of her work. But I do feel that there is some sort of generation change. Younger writers, like Amir Gutfreund, seem to be less immersed by some sort of petrifying awe than you will encounter maybe in earlier writing when it was closer to the Holocaust itself. The guy could be Primo Levi’s son or his grandson that tries to find his connection to that history at an earnest personal level.

But Savyon Liebrecht was born in a DP camp, so she’s a generation older than you, right?
Exactly. I'm somewhere in between the second generation and third generation because my parents were children during the war.

And how do you respond to people who say: "Get over it. The Holocaust is ancient history. Why are you still dwelling on it?”
I think the time of the war was a time that people were closest to saints and closest to devils. So when you read a story about the Holocaust experience, you don't read about some isolated chapter in history. You read a story about the human creature, the personal history. Some of those stories are tales of hope and some of them are tales of despair, so to say “When will you get over it?” will be like “When will you stop writing stories about human beings?”

And to people who say that as an Israeli writer, you should be talking less about the Holocaust and more about the Palestinians?
Well, first of all, the nice thing about art is that there are no obligations when it comes to art. If you want to change the world, you know, do something or write an essay. But the idea about art is really it's this place where your psyche decides and not your agenda.

I think that many stories can reveal hidden agendas and tell you things about the life you are living, but basically I really don't think that when a writer comes to write, he should do his homework and write about what people want him to write. It's one thing that you can’t impose, to say to somebody “Write a book about Palestinians." would be just like saying "Fall in love with a dark haired woman."

Basically I did quite a few things that I think are indirectly connected to the Holocaust because the Germans killed my entire family. If I would have grandparents, I would write a story about how it is to have grandparents. I write what I can write.

Sometimes people ask me questions about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I actually think that it's legitimate. The same way I can trace the Holocaust to my writing, I can easily trace the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to my writing. So if I ever meet a Finnish director, I might ask him: “Is it really as cold there as we think it is?” But anybody who wants to impose topics on artists, then they really don't understand what art is.

OK, so circling back, are you the Israeli Sholem Aleichem?
Well [laughing], out of the lack of any other candidate, I guess I got the job. There's nobody else who's trying!

It's not that I think life is snippets and not epics, it's just that the way I sort out reality in my mind, I guess it stops at the level of snippets. I think that there is something very chaotic and overwhelming in both my emotional and mental experience, and the best I can do is find narratives that will keep it together for a few pages. I really don't have this narrative that could keep it for 600 pages.

Well, if I walk into a bookstore in ten years and find a collection of stories about “Etgar's Tevye,” I’ll remember you said that!

Don't miss this rare opportunity to spend an evening with acclaimed Israeli writer Etgar Keret. Keret will read a selection of his short stories followed by an informal conversation about his work with Rachel S. Harris, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Literature and Israeli Cultural Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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