by Andrew Dietz
Etgar Keret. Photo by Moshe Shai
Everyone needs a scapegoat. Mine is Etgar Keret. It is because of Etgar Keret that I am talking to my Grandpa Sam even though the old fellow has been dead since 1966, one year before Keret was born. Etgar Keret is also undeniably and solely responsible for the fact that I am riding the deceased all the way to Kennesaw, Georgia. Grandpa, by the way, is my 2010 Audi clean diesel A3 TDI.
Etgar Keret is not usually labeled as blameworthy. He is more often described as “Israel's most famous young author” and “the most popular writer among Israel's young generation” or just “the voice of a generation.” Salman Rushdie called him “a brilliant writer” and The New York Times dubbed him a genius. Keret began writing after the suicide of one of his best friends. His first collection of short stories was published in book form in 1992. Now, ten or so books later, his works are available in 29 languages in 34 countries. While Keret first became famous for his short story collections, he more recently has gained acclaim for writing and directing films. His films such as Wristcutters, $9.99 and Jellyfish have won international awards and critical acclaim. Etgar Keret is an Israeli superstar.
Israeli celebrity is not the same as American celebrity, however. In late March 2011, while an American film director celebrity like Francis Ford Coppolla jets between his vineyard in Sonoma and his resort in Belize, Etgar Keret arrives by Subaru at Kennesaw State University. Kennesaw, GA is about twenty miles north of Atlanta and has become a minor boomtown thanks to the exponential growth of its University over the past thirty years. The school now boasts a student population of more than 23,400 from 142 countries. Besides its sprouting University, Kennesaw may be known best for its eponymous mountain, Civil War history, and gun law in which citizens are required to own one. Keret’s celebrity accommodations in Kennesaw are the SpringHill Suites hotel just down the bumper-to-bumper asphalt strip from Town Center Mall.
Keret is visiting Kennesaw to read his short stories, chat with students and discuss his award-winning film, Jellyfish. Keret’s visit is co-sponsored by the Kennesaw State English Department’s Contemporary Literature and Writing Conference and the Consulate General of Israel to the Southeast. I was asked to interview the famed Israeli author during his stay though I had never before heard of him. With little time to prepare, I consume as many Keret stories as I can lay my eyes, ears or hands upon. Keret’s story, “Shoes,” is my introduction and it is like literary crack – jarring and instantly addictive.
Compared to Etgar Keret, other absurdist existentialist writers are gateway reading. Keret is different – maybe because his material is so hard to find in a southern town like Kennesaw or Atlanta. Its exoticism and scarcity makes it all the more desirable.. Only one copy of one Keret book, The Nimrod Flipout, is on the shelf at the nearby Barnes & Noble. I snatch it up and devour it. I turn next to whatever Keret can be gathered online – a quicker, lower cost fix. The author’s website, www.etgarkeret.com, satiates me for a short time. But, soon, it is apparent that only way I will get the simultaneously bleak and hopeful rush that Keret deals will be to get the stuff raw and uncut – straight from the author’s mouth – live and in-person. So, I hop into Grandpa and drive north.
Etgar and Grandpa by Andrew Dietz
My grandfather is not really an Audi A3. But, because of Keret, I imagine him embodying the vehicle. My grandpa fled Czarist Russia for the U.S. by himself in 1912 at age 15. Had grandpa remained in his hometown of Dokshitz, odds are that he would have been one of the 3870 Jews in the village who were massacred during World War II. Etgar Keret’s grandfather did not have the luck to leave a Nazi infested Europe in time and died in the Holocaust.
As a grade schooler, Etgar Keret’s grandpa was his Adidas sneakers. At least that’s the way he tells it in his short story, “Shoes.” Sometime in the mid-1970s on Holocaust Memorial Day, the story goes, the young Keret visits an Israeli museum remembering Ukrainian Jews who were genocide victims. An elderly survivor urges the children to sustain his quest for vengeance against the Germans. “Every time you see German products, be it television…or anything else, you’ll always remember that underneath the elegant wrapping are hidden parts and tubes made of bones and skin and flesh of dead Jews,” he directs Keret and his classmates. Soon after, Keret receives a gift from his parents: a new pair of Adidas trainers. With the survivor’s instructions still fresh, Keret’s German-made shoes not only remind him of his grandfather, they become him.
As I cruise Interstate 75-N in my Audi, I consider the survivor’s words. “Remember that underneath the elegant wrapping are hidden parts and tubes made of bones and skin and flesh of dead Jews.” Audi is a German auto manufacturer and was producing cars during World War II. And then I realize: I am driving Grandpa…or, at least, his brothers and sisters and cousins who did not escape the nightmare in time.
Keret’s stories are sometimes called grotesque and nightmarish and hilarious all at once. In a typical Keret story you may meet an affable magician who can’t stop yanking severed rabbit parts out of a hat. In another, a girlfriend morphs into a hairy guy pal each night. “I write completely from the gut,” Keret says. “Writing, for me, is not a process of controlling the universe but a process of losing control, almost like dreaming a dream.” With the short story as his preferred canvas, Keret is a verbal surrealist painting word pictures of Israel’s existential plight.
While Keret speaks with the Kennesaw community about his surrealist Israeli fiction, a cluster of Emory University students attend an “Israel for Dummies” seminar at the Marcus Hillel Center on their campus. Outside the Hillel lecture hall, adorning the walls of the Center’s common spaces are framed lithographs by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. The limited edition set was commissioned by a New York art book house, Shorewood Publishing, and released in 1968 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Israel’s establishment. Dali’s prints depict the Jewish people’s struggle to return to Israel in the artist’s haunting style: the gruesome and sublime side by side. In one image, a man wrapped in the Israeli flag (and who could be King David or Jesus or, even, Keret himself) gazes to the heavens. In another, concentration camp zombies are draped over barbed wire. “I like Dali’s work. There is something very spectacular about what he is doing. I prefer Magritte though. Magritte is more emotional for me in the way his work touches solitude and loneliness and the emptiness of man inside of society. I really like visual arts and many of my stories start from images,” Keret says.
Dali and Keret by Andrew Dietz
While he may gather some inspiration from surrealist painters, absurdist playwrights and existential philosophers, Keret’s work seems more strongly influenced by the creative accomplishments of non-Israeli Jews…the “Diaspora Jews.” “As an Israeli writer, I always felt closer to Jewish Diaspora writers than to Israeli writers,” Keret has consistently claimed. For thousands of years, Jews have lived in Diaspora – in exile, that is - outside of their land of origin and in a state of chronic identity shift. Am I a Jew? Or am I of this strange land I temporarily inhabit? This conundrum, among others, has bred a unique type of humor: Jewish Diaspora humor which is often self-referential and self-deprecating. It is especially this brand of self-reflexive humor that pervades Keret’s work and provides an aftertaste of hopefulness and empathy with each story. It is a Jewish survival skill.
“Israel isn’t fundamentally different from any other place in world, it is just more exaggerated like listening to the same music as everyone else but at full volume and can rip your eardrum to pieces,” Keret says. “I’m not sure Israel is the best place to live but it is the best place to write. Sometimes I say Israel is not a country, it’s a reality show. It’s a small space filled with conflicting ideas and every week someone checks out.”
Even when shining a bright light on perceived injustice or hypocrisy, Keret does it with a warm touch. “I’m against political correctness,” Keret proclaims. “It is just a way of avoiding the problem and sticking a safe word on top to mask the real issue. I appreciate when people document things and put them in your face. They ask you for some sort of an answer rather than letting you hide under the carpet.”
Etgar Keret is one of those direct people. His stories strip away all but the raw and real for observation. At the same time, Keret writes with an intention of genuine kindness and concern that is evident when spending time with him. “I may be critical about our situation but I don’t claim that the problems we face don’t have human roots,” Keret says. The compassion conveyed in his writing is best summarized by his father’s response to his own portrayal in Keret’s stories. “My father said to me once in half of your stories, the father dies and in the other half he’s stupid,” Keret recounts. “But in all of them I feel that you love me.”
"The goat will bear upon itself all their iniquities..." (Leviticus 16:22) In many ways, a Jewish Diaspora absurdist sets himself up to be the butt of his own jokes…a sort of cosmic, comic scapegoat. Writers like Keret are the walking embodiment of the paradoxes that surround us. Keret puts it this way, “If you really grasp what is going on, in some sort of way, you should feel some desperation.” I blame him for that.
Andrew Dietz is a writer, entrepreneur,
and art lover based in Atlanta, Georgia.