Etgar Keret is one of Israel’s most acclaimed contemporary authors, with particular appeal to the younger generations. His books are bestsellers in Israel and around the world, and have been translated into 22 languages. His short stories have been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Paris Review and Zoetrope. Over 40 short films have been based on his stories, and Jellyfish, a feature film he co-directed with his wife, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2007. Catriona Mitchell met him at the 2010 Ubud Writers Festival.
“This is the best festival in the world. I haven’t had so much fun since my bar mitzvah.”
Etgar, this is your first trip to Indonesia – no easy feat on an Israeli passport. What made you decide to come to Bali?
Richard Flanagan recommended the festival to me, but the main reason was: I know this is a country where there is some hatred for Israel. And I really feel that whenever you come to a place where there is anti-Semitism, there’s something very humanizing about it – an abstract idea can take the form of a human being. For sure I didn’t come to try to justify anything my government does, because this is not a government that I specifically vote for, but I came to give a glimpse of those ambiguities of existence that exist in real life and are portrayed in fiction.
Do you feel like a representative of Israel when you travel?
It’s not that I feel that I represent my country, as much as I feel that I represent myself. When people don’t know me, they a priori hate me. There’s this phenomenon that’s anti-Israel. People aren’t anti-Italian or anti-redhead or anti-people who wear sandals, but the fact is that if someone carries this kind of passport you hate him and that’s something that I would like to change.
Israel is a complex country with an active peace movement and all kinds of shifts in its politics, and it’s part of a very complex regional situation – which does not justify the occupation. The truth is that most of us live in a very complex reality.
Have you ever succeeded in breaking down prejudices by appearing at a writers’ festival?
This has happened a lot. For example I met the Indonesian author of the book My Friend the Terrorist, and he said to me that in the past whenever he thought about Israel there was a series of negative images in his mind, but now when he thinks about Israel he sees me smiling.
Do you think humour can play a role in changing people’s attitudes?
I think traditionally humour is always the weapon of the weak. We usually use humour in those places where we can’t change reality. It’s kind of a way of protesting against reality. Look at Irish humour. It’s the same with Jewish humour. When you meet something in your life that you can change, change it. If you can’t, make a joke of it.
Is this what got you started as a writer?
I started writing when in the compulsory army service. I did computer work in shifts of 48 hours, which were very much like solitary confinement. I would go through all kinds of crazy psychological processes, and in one of those shifts I found myself writing.
I wrote a text and then I went to see my older brother. I buzzed his intercom, but it was very early in the morning and he said “I’d better come down, my girlfriend’s mad because you woke her up”. He came down to walk the dog. The dog really wanted to take a crap, but because my brother was reading he kind of dragged him along the street while reading my story. Luckily for the dog this was a very short story, so he was finally able to relieve his doggy urges and my brother said to me “Man, this is amazing. Do you have another copy?” I said “Sure,” and so he bent down and picked up the dog crap with the story.
I realized the power of literature in that moment. I realized what I wanted to do, because this was so much the demonstration of how a text can become part of us. It has nothing to do with the paper.
Do you think you would ever have started writing, without the “solitary confinement”?
I had never written anything before that. I majored in physics and maths, and studied engineering. If I wasn’t writing I don’t know what would have happened — worst case scenario I would have become a very unhappy engineer, and a mediocre one.
What is it about writing that captivates you?
When you’re a soldier, you really don’t have any privacy. You shower with other people; if your girlfriend sends you a letter your sergeant will read it out loud to make fun of you. When you’re writing it’s basically a place that echoes what you really feel, and where that can stay untainted. It’s more than privacy, it’s kind of like me telling myself secrets.
I’m a great believer that writing is creating the space where you can say what you want, and be what you are. In the Biblical times there were safe cities that you could escape to, like a city of refuge. Writing is like that — it is like a sanctuary.
When you talk about writing it sounds like you’re talking about freedom.
There’s something very, very liberating about writing. I often say it is so much easier for me to write than to live. In my stories I can just be.
Has success changed you?
Success is a very tricky thing. It can disconnect you from life. I must say I find it to my advantage that I have such a talent for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time that it seems that no matter how successful I am, I’m still able to fuck it up.
You teach writing at university, and are commonly described as the “voice of young Israel”. Do you feel any sense of responsibility regarding your influence on young minds?
I’m a very responsible, over-stressed kind of guy. I’m the son of Holocaust survivors. My primary instinct since I was a kid, knowing my parents suffered so much, was to just want everybody to be happy. So usually I am suppressed the way somebody living inside society should be. But when I write I’m kind of celebrating my humanity. I think there’s something much more dangerous, responsibility-wise, in manufacturing the right ideology for people, rather than just telling your truth. If it’s the truth, I really believe there can be nothing harmful in it.
Do your parents read your writing?
For sure. They love it. My father once told me: “in your stories, in one half the father always dies, and in the other half he’s an asshole, but in each and every story I can always feel that you love me.”
You say that it’s difficult for you to be a writer in Hebrew, because writers in Hebrew are seen as prophets.
Hebrew is the language of the Bible and is seen as a holy language. When you publish a book in Hebrew it’s always the one that will be next to the Bible on the shelf.
Hebrew has a unique story because it didn’t exist as a spoken language for 2000 years. People were very articulate in reading and understanding it, but they never spoke it until one arbitrary moment where it got defrosted. So it has an intrinsic tension between its very ancient roots and the fact that it has to be anarchistic and chaotic and open to inventing words and importing words, so people can say what they want. There was no Internet in the Bible, there were no faxes in the Bible, so they had to make up something for these things.
Hebrew is both very creative and anarchistic, and at the same time very classic. And that’s what’s fascinating about it for me. It touches this inner contradiction we have in Israeli society, which is a very paradoxical society of not only being young – we have old people but are a young country – but also this contradiction of being wild and conservative.
You have also made films. What’s it like seeing your stories on screen?
There’s something very lonely and egocentric about being a writer. When you write, you just make up what you want and most of your interaction with people is interviews or talks – you’re with people but usually you talk about yourself. You can get used to that, and that’s very dangerous.
For me, filmmaking is about being open, listening, accepting others; it’s all about human interaction and flexibility. I really like collaborating with people. My wife admitted to me that she was jealous of the film editor we were working with, who was a Croatian man who weighed 100kg. She said “I feel your closeness.” A film is like this kind of sexless orgy.
Sex plays quite a role in your writing.
Yeah it does. I would say that when many people meet me they are disappointed or surprised because I’m not like my stories. And it’s for a reason, because if I was like my stories I wouldn’t need to write my stories. I’m not documenting my life, I’m documenting my yearnings. There’s a huge difference.