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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Israeli author describes identity in writing

Published: October 31, 2008
Section: News

Etgar Keret first decided to be a writer when his brother picked up dog poop with one of his stories. That decisive moment lent him the epiphany that catalyzed his career as an author, he explained at a Meet the Author event Tuesday. “You can’t touch the essence of a story,” he said. “You can’t ruin it with poop.”

Thirty years later, the award-winning Israeli author and filmmaker visited Brandeis Monday and Tuesday to discuss and publicize the unblemished essence of his latest collection of short stories, The Girl on the Fridge: Stories. The event was part of a Meet the Author series of events sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.

During his two-day visit to Brandeis, Keret attended a screening of his Palme d’Or winning movie, Jellyfish, presented a creative writing workshop, spoke to Hebrew language students, delivered a public lecture on his writing, and signed autographs.

Perhaps it is his unique use of language, relishing the subtle nuances and dichotomies of modern Hebrew slang, that captivate scholars all over the globe. For Israelis, Jews and other eternal misfits, perhaps it is the ease with which one can identify with his pensive characters who never fully belong. But for the majority of the Brandeis community present at his events, it was probably Keret’s persistent soft-spoken nature, his self-deprecating humor and humility that were most captivating.

Having been expelled from three or four army units, Keret explained that his talent was not apparent from an early age. “My commander once said that he believes that every object or person in this world are good for something, but that he just couldn’t figure out what I was good for,” he recounted.

But besides the humility and the self-proclaimed accidental genius of his work, Keret’s stories are lined with his intricate analysis and deep understanding of the Israeli identity. Modern Hebrew slang, he explained, contains the paradoxical identity of the country and its people. “It’s a country with the most ancient roots, but also a young country that is forming itself and looking for its identity. You feel this intrinsic tension in the language,” he said.

Due to his understanding of the Israeli identity as fragmented, Keret understands and boasts of the limits of his work. “People ask if I’m the voice of young Israelis,” he said, “and I say that it depends what Israelis they are talking about. Is it the young Israeli-Arabs? Orthodox Jews? Settlers?” According to Keret, no writer is able to represent the present Israeli society in its fullness, in the way that writers of previous times, such as Amos Oz, have done.

Keret identifies more with Jewish writers than Israeli writers, however. “Israel may have the best army in the world, but Jews are funny,” he said. “I prefer to be funny.”

Ironically, other young Israelis may feel the same way. “[Keret] uses humor to get out of situations, just like I do,” said Ariel Levy ’09.

In his talk, as well as in an interview, Keret addressed this week’s most heated topics: politics and the economy. The recession, he said, affects him most in that it gives him inspiration for stories. “It’s very interesting to watch,” he said, thanking his profession for existing independently of the fluctuations of the market.

As for political issues, Keret purposely addressed them vaguely and from an Israeli perspective. He said he finds it peculiar that many Israeli fiction writers write from a position of authority, promoting their political positions. “Hi, I’m Etgar Keret, the author,” he joked. “Vote for Shmul?”

“I’m not that kind of writer, I don’t write from a position in which I think I know better than my readers. When you write fiction, it’s all about ambiguity and complexity,” he said. Reality, in comparison, is mostly pragmatic. Therefore, it is puzzling that people view authors as pragmatic authorities, since “all they do is sit at their computers thinking about things that don’t exist,” Keret said.

Keret himself is not the paragon of concern for practical matters. A philosophy and mathematics student at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Keret said that he rarely attended his first classes each day because he consistently failed to wake up.

His nocturnal shifts in the army, he explained, had interfered with his circadian system. His excuse to the professor was that he stayed up late, each night, writing stories. The professor, in return, asked to read said stories.

That excuse, it turns out, placed Keret’s stories in the publishing room for the very first time. So much for “the dog ate my homework.”

As for the dog that helped Keret make the biggest decision of his professional career, that one would certainly have eaten his stories if he’d had the chance. On the fateful morning when Keret and his brother decided to take the dog out for a leak, his brother was so involved in the story that he neglected making stops for the dog to carry out his business.

“The dog was going ‘boing, boing, boing,’” Keret recounted. “Thankfully for the dog, I write short stories.”