“Our life is one thing, and you always reinvent it to be something else more interesting,” Etgar Keret’s wife tells him in his memoir The Seven Good Years. “That’s what writers do, right?”
Keret does have a prodigious talent for reinventing life on the page — or perhaps not so much reinventing life as honing in on its most interesting moments, and splicing them into compulsively readable tales. Internationally known for his short fiction, graphic novels, and screenplays, the Israeli author makes his first foray into nonfiction with The Seven Good Years, a series of interlinked vignettes that span the years between the birth of his son and the death of his father.
Keret’s voice, translated seamlessly from the original Hebrew, is conversational, unpretentious, and often hilarious. It is easy to get so caught up in his anecdotes that their incisive depth sneaks up on you — such as when he illustrates his experience of being Jewish in Bali with a tale about a hotel worker finding a five-foot lizard in a bathtub.
In the biblical story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, the seven years of plenty are followed by seven years of famine. In Keret’s memoir, personal and political difficulties are imminent, even in joyful times. At the playground, parents discuss whether or not their three-year-old children will eventually join the military. On book tours, Keret encounters echoes of the antisemitism that haunted his parents in Poland. And eventually Keret’s father, a big-hearted, high-spirited Holocaust survivor, is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Keret would be the first to cast himself as an imperfect clairvoyant. Like the Pharaoh, he is prone to anxiety-fueled dreams, but the interpretations he receives are far less accurate. A reccurring nightmare — in which he is selling hot dogs to a menacing mob — leads him to invest his money in a foreign bank for safekeeping, where it eventually turns to dust. When he and his wife become convinced that a nuclear bomb will be dropped on Israel, they forego housework and take out a huge loan before it becomes clear that they’ll have to settle for peace after all. Underneath the humor lies a grim reality: in Keret’s Israel, unlike biblical Egypt, even the best of planning cannot ward off tragedy.
Remembering his father’s bedtime stories about postwar Italy, Keret realizes that they were meant to teach him “about the desire not to beautify reality but to persist in searching for an angle that would put ugliness in a better light and create affection and empathy for every wart and wrinkle on its scarred face.” Keret categorizes the seven years in his memoir as “good” even though they’re rife with mini-disasters. Like his father, he doesn’t gloss over the bad. Instead he approaches his woes with Keret’s particular blend of compassion and humor that makes them more understandable, more human. Keret’s wife is right — storytelling does, indeed, have the power to reinvent life.
- Etgar Keret Reading List
- Haim Watzman: Wimps
- Ranen Omer-Sherman: Israeli Writers Embracing English
Read Becca Kantor’s interview with Etgar Keret here.
Becca Kantor is the editorial director of Jewish Book Council and its annual print literary journal, Paper Brigade. She received an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Becca spent a year in Estonia on a Fulbright scholarship, writing and studying the country’s Jewish history, and another year in Germany volunteering at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. She lives in Brooklyn.