A child nurtured by a major appliance isn’t usually the subject of great fiction, but as the stories in Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s collection The Girl on the Fridge can attest to, this masterful writer can make even the most bizarre of situations deeply emotionally resonant. Short, strange, and brutally funny, Keret’s stories have caused him to be hailed as a “genius” by The New York Times and placed him as a star on the stage of world literature.
On a recent tour to the States to promote his book, Keret had just arrived in Boston without his luggage or passport, having lost both at the airport. “It’s like a Woody Allen film,” he observed, “But not as funny.” The Girl on the Fridge is Keret’s fourth story collection to be published in English— the others include The Nimrod Flipout (FSG, 2006), The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God (Toby Press, 2004) and Missing Kissinger (Chatto & Windus, 2007). Despite its English publication sequence, The Girl on the Fridge collects Keret’s stories from his first two books in Hebrew. Essentially his juvenilia, the brilliance of Keret’s writing is apparent even at 22 (he’s now 41) when he began to publish fresh out of the Israeli army.
“It’s like looking at a photo album from when you were still young and didn’t have a pot belly yet,” said Keret about the stories collected for this book. “It’s funny because I know I wouldn’t be able to write them now, and sometimes I kind of miss that passion and anger. There’s something more reconciled in my writing now. I miss that crazy energy even though I realize how messed up I was.”
He might have been young, but Keret’s ability to apply a scalpel of observation and wit to the underbelly of contemporary Israel and reveal its messy innards and human experiences is remarkable. His Israel is less the mythic land of milk, honey, and pioneers, and more about the complicated everyday life in a country beleaguered by the constant undercurrent of violence.
Keret is the son of a Holocaust survivor, grew up largely secular, and has a sister who’s deeply religious (now in her mid 40’s, she has 11 children and two grandchildren. “When I go over there they all scream my name at the same time.”). He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, filmmaker and actress Shira Geffen, and their two-year old son, Lev. Keret and Geffen have collaborated on films, including the recently released Jellyfish, which won a Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (his work was also the basis for the recent film Wristcutters: A Love Story). On top of all of this, he’s often heralded as the heir to Amos Oz’s status as a titan of Israeli literature and voice of his generation.
The comparisons to Oz flatter Keret, but he takes them in stride. Once, when the two spoke together, Oz explained that he writes fiction and essays with two different pens— for fiction it’s a pen of confusion, and for essays it’s a pen of clarity. “I write both on my computer,” Keret deadpanned.
Along with the accolades come the inevitable questions of the political content of his writing as an Israeli artist. Although his work rarely deals with politics directly, he is still subject to the question.
“When I showed Jellyfish two people came up and started shouting at me. They said I am pro-Palestinian and that I was part of a conspiracy to show that Israel has bad hotel rooms.” As for the constant questions, Keret said: “It’s not funny, it’s not sad, it’s just strange. Is the dog a Palestinian, or the father an Israeli? Many people think being political is being pragmatic. The politics I exercise do not come from that position. Look around and tell me what you feel about it. Look into yourself. I think telling people what the right thing to do is too obvious and a cliché. I don’t want to endorse ideas the way Michael Jordan endorses shoes. I’m not sure I know better than everybody else. Art is a stage where you promote ambiguity.”
Although he travels widely to promote his work, Keret’s heart remains in Tel Aviv, and particularly with Lev. Asked if his son has inherited his parent’s creative talents, Keret replied “He really loves stories, and likes telling stories, but they’re very boring. They’re very long and are usually about Lev leaving the house and eating ice cream. You would think it was Crime and Punishment [because] they’re so long and he’s so excited when he tells them.”
If a literary life isn’t in the cards for Lev, perhaps one in film is. “He loves watching films, since he was 14 months he would watch movies. We took him once to see The Red Balloon in Tel Aviv and when it was over he started crying, again, and again. The usher was really nice, and told him we’re sorry, but we just show it once. It was the wrong answer. Lev started to hit the usher. My wife and I call him the little Mussolini.”
Ruth Andrew Ellenson is a winner of a National Jewish Book Award for The Modern Jewish Girls’ Guide to Guilt (Penguin Random House), and a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post