High register, low register

A conversation with the writer Etgar Keret

The minimalist stories and comics of Etgar Keret have won many readers in Israel, Poland, Hungary, China, the United States and a dozen other countries. In late October 2012, Keret visited Riga, where he met with the readers of his book of short stories, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories. Later he entertained a smaller audience at the residence of the Israeli ambassador.

Ieva Lesinska: Does it happen often that you get invited to ambassadors’ houses?
Etgar Keret: No, not that much. Usually, when I come to very small countries. And here the ambassador, she really likes my stories. So I don’t mind it, I don’t have a problem with the ambassadors. I have a problem with my foreign minister, but that’s another thing. I was supposed to come here in February, but my father got very ill, he passed away since then. I was in Stockholm and so I thought on the way back I could settle my debt to Riga.

IL: You mentioned your father. From your stories it seems that you were quite close to your parents.

EK: Oh yeah, I’m close to all my family, they’re very special people. My mother is still alive. But I’m very lucky to have somebody like my brother and my sister, and my parents are very special people.
IL: I understand that both of your parents are Holocaust survivors.
EK: Yes.
IL: Can you tell me more about that? What has it meant for you, what has it meant for them, for their lives?
EK: Well, first of all I could just kind of give you a biographical sketch of my mother, she is from Warsaw. She lost both her parents, her brother, basically her entire family in the ghetto.
IL: How did she survive?
EK: She first lost her mother and brother, but she and her father were able to get transferred to another ghetto, a “milder” one, which was just outside of Warsaw. There, my grandfather, who took part in the Polish uprising, was caught by Germans and killed, too.
IL: So not in the Ghetto Uprising, but in the Warsaw Uprising?
EK: Yeah, he collaborated with the Polish underground. But he died before the actual uprising, he was moving weapons for the underground and was caught. So my mother was on her own, but she was already outside of the ghetto when it was destroyed.
IL: And your father?
EK: Yeah, my father survived the war in Baranovichi, now it’s Belarus, it used to be Poland. He dug a hole in the ground with his parents. The Germans killed his sister. But with his parents, and two other more distant family members, he dug this very small hole in the ground, in which they could not stand, or lie, they could just sit, and they were there for six hundred days, when the Russians entered the territory, to take them out.
They both were survivors. My father especially, there was something very unique about him. Usually survivors are very suspicious, but he was extremely optimistic, he trusted people, believed in everyone. And I said to him, “Why?” And he said that he had a very tough starting point for life, the Holocaust, but he says that then things kept improving. He said: ‘I had very low standards when it comes to believing in humans, but the longer I live it gets better. He was a very trusting person. And because he survived the Holocaust, and he had his life, he said: “I don’t want to live one life, I want to live many lives”. So every seven years he would change his profession. And sometimes he was good at what he did, sometimes he was bad. So for a childhood, sometimes we were at middle class, sometimes we were poor, it depends what he did. And he was very, very, very creative, an amazing person.
My mother is also amazing, in a different way. My mother is tougher. Actually, I wrote a piece about my mother and the house they built for me in Poland.1
IL: What house is that?
EK: Well, it’s a very interesting and weird project. It was about three years ago, somebody called me on the phone and said in English, with a very heavy Polish, that he was walking down a street in Warsaw and he saw a gap between two buildings, a narrow gap, and the gap told him that he should build me a house there. I said ok, do whatever the gap tells you. You can’t argue with the gap, you know. And I forgot all about it. But this man turned out to be a very serious and an extremely talented Polish architect who did all kinds of strange projects. And after some time he came to Israel. So basically, the story was that there were these two buildings with no windows on the sides, and the gap between them was like ninety centimetres, and people threw garbage in it. There he decided to build me a house in the proportion of my stories, that would be basically minimalistic, but would have everything a house needs. I said to him, you know the land belongs to the municipality, you don’t have any budget, I don’t see how you can do it. He said, if you just give me your blessing and I’ll do it. I said ok, and then a couple of weeks ago I was at the opening, and I stayed at the house, and it was very, very moving. You can see it on my Facebook page, they also wrote about it in the New York Times, they’ve got the photos, and in other places. It’s called the Keret House. I stayed there, and at night drunks would come and shout under my window “Keret, we love you!”. A lot of people come to visit it, because it’s like an art exhibit. And it was very interesting, very moving. The widow of Wladyslaw Szpilman came – the movie The Pianist was based on his novel – and, she was very moved, and many other famous people came. And I got offers of sex as some sort of Jewish-Polish reconciliation, but it didn’t work, you know, because I am married. But a lot of extreme things happened, it was very beautiful, very moving.
IL: Interesting. But the house, you plan to stay in it when you are in Warsaw?
EK: The house is basically an artistic project. But Poland really is a country that I visit more often than other places, both because of my origins and also because it’s the country I’m most successful in, outside of Israel. But the idea is to have all kinds of artistic operations, to invite other guests to the house, other artists, and as an exhibition it’s kind of open. I know that they wrote on Facebook “Who wants to come?” and more than 3,000 people do, so now they have to choose. At the opening, nobody wanted me to read to them. Some of them wanted to read to me in Polish, others wanted advice, like one of them had an affair with a married man. She didn’t know if she should believe him. It was very intimate interaction, it was very nice.
IL: I just read the book that has come out in Latvian. Before I left for this interview, my daughter, who is eight-and-a-half years old, saw the book and asked me if I was sure this was not a book for children, I said no, it’s not a book for children. But I did read her a story.
EK: About the piggy bank?
IL: Of course. She wanted me to tell you that she really liked the story, but of course she thought of different ways to end the story. Basically, the boy should get another pig, a live one, feed it, and then they would have each other as friends, but the piggy bank he should hide in a safe place so that the father cannot find it and break it.
EK: It’s a better plan. It’s funny, because they told me they did this kind of programme in Israel, where they wanted to get young children from the slums, from very poor and crime-ridden neighbourhoods, to get them interested in reading. So they gave them this story, and they gave them an exercise to continue the story after it ends. And the instructors told me that eighty percent of them said that the kid leaves the piggy bank in the field, then a junky comes and breaks the pig, and takes the money and buys himself heroine.
So the way a kid ends the story can tell you about how confident he is, and how nice. So your daughter seems to have a good life and she understands it.
You know, when I published this book in Israel, I was at the time a student at the university, studying for my M.A., and this professor who didn’t like the book said to me, “I see that your book is successful, but it cannot be too deep. I took this story, and I read it to my daughter who is eight year old and she understood it”. And I said to him, first of all, I’m sorry that you find your daughter shallow. But also it concerns aesthetics, because when I studied in university I first studied mathematics, and in mathematics the best and most aesthetic proof is a proof that is accessible to somebody who doesn’t know mathematics. So if I can come up with proof that only a professor of mathematics can understand, it means that it’s not as good as, say, Pythagoras. What I took from this short time that I studied maths is this: that I really wanted to write stories that your daughter can read, a taxi driver can read and somebody else can read, and each can read from it as much as he or she can.
IL: So are you moving toward the shorter and shorter? Are you eventually going to be one of these people who publish the 140 character Twitter line?
EK: No, no! Actually, in my latest collection, the stories are slightly longer, not much longer, but just slightly longer – four pages, six pages, but the aesthetics is similar.
IL: Do you start out with a longer story and then pare it down?
EK: Yeah. They’re pretty short to begin with, but the editing process with me is always kind of making it shorter and shorter. Let’s say, when I write the stories, I am really more like the reader and not the writer, meaning that I write them because I want to know what’s going to happen. And I think this also creates some sort of an impatience. It’s like somebody tells you a story, and you want to know what happens, and then he starts describing the leaves of the tree, and you say, “Stop going on and on about that, what happened to the girl?”, you know? I feel very much at peace when I write. For me writing is some kind of direction, a space. And when I edit, many times I see that there are things I needed them to understand the story, but now that the story is there, they’re no longer necessary. So I very seldom add things, I mostly take things off when I edit.
IL: How about the translations of your stories? Obviously you can’t read all of them. How much are they really dependent on the Hebrew language? What is lost in translation? You can obviously read at least the English translations.
EK: Well, the thing is, in Israel, when I was first accepted, the thing that everybody talked about, including critics – some liked what I wrote, some hated it – was the language I used. Because in Israel, traditionally, writers write in very high register because the Hebrew language has a strange history. It existed as only a written language for two thousand years, and people didn’t speak it. They spoke Yiddish, or Ladino, but they didn’t speak Hebrew. So it has some sort of a holy status. Even in modern times, when people write fiction, they know that their book will be put on the shelf next to the Bible. So when I started writing I wrote in the colloquial speech, which is something that wasn’t very common. And I had this thing that I would do, I would invent words or do things that are not in the Israeli tradition of writing. Some people liked it, some people thought that it was disrespectful of the language. But the thing is, when I work with my translators, they say that they cannot translate the way that I write into other languages because of this special historical language. The Hebrew language didn’t develop organically: basically, from some moment in history, people started speaking it, and this created a tension in the language itself, with the biblical fundamentals – unlike English that has changed through the years. If somebody who spoke English in medieval time would listen to the two of us I bet he would hardly understand a word. But if anyone would hear me speaking Hebrew, he would understand most of what I’m saying.
IL: Except for the slang.
EK: Except for the slang. But even when you use slang, basically I would say half the words used are biblical. The other half are those words that, in this gap of two thousand years, people needed but that were not in the Bible. For example: water tap, tire and the like. So because words were needed immediately, they can be easily imported from other languages and put in the Hebrew form: so I can take a Russian word and put it in the Hebrew form, but I can also invent a word, which people can easily understand from the context, because they’re used to the fact that all the time somebody tries to explain something, but doesn’t have the word.
So this creates an interesting tension inside the sentence. You have biblical words, but also a totally kind of invented, or imported words. Which means that the English equivalent is that you have a sentence that is half King James Bible, half Jay-Z rap, you know? When you say a sentence, the register may go like this: biblical, biblical, Arabic, biblical, Russian, biblical… And this is something you cannot do in another language. So many times the translator says, you can either bring all the register up, or take all of it down, but it cannot be both. To me, however, this kind of captures the spirit of the Israeli nation, which is both ancient and extremely young. This tension between religious and conservative and liberal and anarchistic is in the Israeli society all the time.
IL: In Latvian the translators seem to have taken the register down, and the language is very colloquial.
EK: But I think that’s what most translators do. They cannot keep the tension and most of the stories wouldn’t bear an extremely high register. You wouldn’t want to have a child speaking like a prophet, would you?
IL: It could be interesting. But I wanted to ask you about the last story in the book, which is about suicide. You also have a movie about suicides who meet in afterlife. What is it about suicide that fascinates you? Or are you more interested in afterlife?
EK: I can give you two answers. I can give you a biographical one, and an aesthetic one.
IL: Give me both.
EK: Ok. First of all, I must say that there is something about suicide that it is very important from the moral point of view: you have reached a point that helps you look at your life both as an insider and an outsider, because you’re standing at this gate of leaving. And this idea that you have a choice regarding your life is also very interesting. Basically it breaks the inertia of life. It’s a powerful metaphor that I have used in different ways in different stories. When I wrote “Kneller’s Summer Camp”, it wasn’t about suicide, it was about my life at that period, when I hung out with people who’d been there, done that. All of us had been in the army, seen people dying, we experimented with all the drugs you can think of. You know, there were so many overwhelming experiences we’d been through that basically we were kind of outsiders to life. For me, the metaphor of suicide, people who gave up on life, is very good for that. In some deep sense, I found my way back to life through love, through falling in love – that meant reconnecting again to life.
I must say that, on a biographical level, quite a few people who were very close to me committed suicide. My best friend killed himself when we were together in the army. My first girlfriend killed herself, albeit a long time after we parted, a couple of other people… When my best friend killed himself, we were together in the army, and I was the one who found him after he shot himself. A week later I wrote my first story, “Pipes”. I feel that there was something in suicide that affected my life – a lot. Not only because I started writing. Even before this I was very unhappy with my life, especially when I was in the army – there it is very easy to be unhappy with your life. But once my friend killed himself, he put me in the spot where I had to confront the facts of life and make a choice, and if I chose not to kill myself, that meant that I had some responsibility for it, had to give it some sense. And I think “Pipes” is just about that, you know. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s the first story that I’ve written, because basically the story says, if you are unhappy, find a way out of that, find a way to live your life. If your answer to the question why not kill yourself is that you want to live, then it’s like entering an apartment, and it’s a dump. You could have said, “No thanks, I don’t want to be here, it’s not really mine”. But if you say “yeah, I want to be here”, then the first thing you do is begin cleaning the floor, right?
IL: And how is your life now that, if I understand what you are saying, you have cleaned the floor? I don’t mean to get very personal…

EK: You can get personal! To tell you the truth, the farther the place I go to is from where I live, the more sincere I become. When I’m in Israel, I never talk about anything personal, in the US and England I talk more, and when I get to Latvia or Lithuania or Korea, I become very very sincere.
IL: That’s good. I’ve never been to Israel, but I think it’s a pretty harsh place to live – so I’d like to know how you feel there.
EK: Like everything else in Israel, it’s very contradictory and paradoxical. For example, Israel is one of the safest places on earth, in the sense that a child or a woman can walk the streets at 3 a.m. and they won’t be harassed, nobody will touch them. We hardly have any crime, we live in this very friendly community. On the other hand, we are in a never ending conflict. During the second intifada, many people I knew died, or they somehow got hurt. The place I had coffee every day got bombed, the place I would go with my parents out on Fridays for dinner was attacked. More than once, I would stand in the street and hear a loud “boom”, and see smoke billowing. I was at my parent’s house during the first Gulf War, and a missile hit the house next to us. Much of the time you feel extremely safe until you’re not, you know? So its not this kind of feeling where I wake up and say “Wow, I live in a dangerous place!” But I think that this kind of thing is always at the back of my mind, at the back of everybody’s mind, and this is why, on a subconscious level, everybody’s very very stressed, and this is turned into some superficial passion, like people watch shitty reality shows and look for recipes on the internet, and worry about sending their kids to the right school. It’s a very bipolar situation.
Once I wrote a piece about my acupuncturist. At the time I grew a moustache, and he started talking to me about this moustache. He said, “Oh, the last time I had a moustache…” And he told me he was in a special army unit, in which he did reserve duty, and they would go across the border to Lebanon, and once they told them that if they met someone carrying a weapon, they must kill them immediately. So he saw someone, and he wanted to kill him, but then, just seconds before pulling the trigger, he realized the guy wasn’t holding a rifle but an umbrella. So this guy could be twenty days a year a killer, and the rest of the year a human-rights activist, a left-winger who doesn’t let his children play with guns because guns mean violence. Or, let’s take the difference between me and a Latvian my age. If you happened to be my girlfriend, and I came to you but you locked the door and said, “I don’t want to see you anymore, get lost”, then I wouldn’t come in out of respect for you. But I know how to kick a door in; the fact that you lock it doesn’t mean shit to me. So there is this kind of feeling that, let’s say, unlike many, especially western societies, where civilization seems to be part of the ontology, in Israel the feeling is that it’s a choice. We are playing this game where we are very very civilized, but the next moment we can crush and destroy. I see a guy with a rifle and I will either have to kill him or he’ll kill me. So there is something stressful about this.
I go with my three-year-old to a park and he is playing with other three-year-olds, but then one of the mothers says to me, “So, when he is eighteen, he is going to go to the army, right?” because it’s compulsory. But if he claimed that he was mentally disturbed or had some other problem, he could try and cheat the system, like you could here when the Soviet army was here. So I say to them, “But he is only three! I don’t know what he’ll do.” And then they criticize me, saying that I am this or that, and basically a hippie. So there is something about this mentality, it is half normal, half totally insane. And I’m sure the people who live it are not aware of it that much, just like people here do not realize how damned dark and cold it is here.
When I was five years old, I remember I was in our living room, when the Yom Kippur war had started, and they came in this army car to take my father to the front. We knew that there was a good chance that he’d die, and I still remember my father taking a piece of paper and writing down all the debts that he had – like he bought cigarettes in the local kiosk on credit. He left the note to my mother, so she’d know whom to pay what. And you see this list and you realize that the only reason that he’s made it is because he might die. For me these things have always been very stressful. Most Israelis would say I’m a pussy, but for me it’s always very stressful.
IL: Would you say that you’re a pacifist?
EK: I’m definitely not a pacifist. My wife would even claim that I’m a very aggressive person. I had my nose broken, I have scars…
IL: You get into fights?
EK: Yeah. The last twenty years I’ve been much quieter. I mostly fought with other soldiers when I was in the army – since I was a mathematician, I did not really see combat. As a Holocaust survivor, my mother who was raised in orphanages always taught me not to avoid conflicts. Because in an orphanage if a girl said, “Ok, ok, whatever you want”, she could get raped, you know. So the idea was that you always have to fight. I can’t say I am terribly aggressive, but I’m not a pacifist. And actually, I don’t believe in pacifism. At the same time, I’m not even disgusted by violence – it just gets me totally depressed. When my son was little, he was about to step on a cockroach. I stopped him, and he asked me why. I said to him, “Do you know how to make a new one?” He said no. I said, “Never break what you don’t know how to make. You can break anything in the house if you know how to make it. If you don’t, respect it” I’ve been in enough situations where I couldn’t avoid confrontation, or I had to fight for something which I thought was important. But at the same time, I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of five.
IL: Why is that?
EK: I saw “Bambi”, and I asked my father why the hunters shot Bambi’s mother? And he said, “To make a schnitzel for you!” So I said, ok, I’m not eating Bambi’s family. Then there was a big argument in my family about whether Bambi had any friends or relatives which were fish. It wasn’t YouTube time, so we couldn’t just check it. I claimed there was a fish in the Disney cartoon, but now, forty years later, I have to admit that there was none. But I remembered some animated fish from somewhere, and I haven’t eaten meat ever since.
IL: The late historian Tony Judt has said that Israel strikes him as an East European country, but that it would do it much good to finally realize that it is a Middle East country. But in your movie “Jellyfish” it really struck me that the whole aesthetic, and not just the characters, was kind of East European.
EK: I think this may have something to do with fact that I’m of Polish descent and that my wife comes from a family that is half Russian. I think Israel has so many contradicting realities, I could make a movie where the same city would look completely Mediterranean. It’s about the place you come from. I come from a house where my parents spoke Polish, and the books that I read were mostly East European, so it was very natural for me to assume this aesthetic. That is why it’s not a surprise for me that, let’s say readers from Poland and Russia find it easy to connect to what I write about. We can also talk about Israel as being an Eastern European country in the sense that we were for many years a socialist state. We were not communist, but we were socialist, with kibbutzes, one government channel on TV, with all kinds of stuff that was not imported to the country because it was considered an unnecessary luxury.
IL: Was Israel a better country then?
EK: My instinct is to say yes. I’m very much afraid of nostalgic thoughts, but what I can say is instinctively is that I really don’t believe in the capitalist system when it’s pushed to its limits. I think that every system, when it’s pushed to its limits, is dangerous. As you well know, communism meant depression, the inability to say what you wanted, lack of freedom. But in capitalism, I find it weird that the cure for AIDS is patent-protected. That’s why there are millions of people dying in Africa: not because their pharmacies could not prepare the medicine, taking two substances and mixing them together, but because they can’t pay for the patent. This is completely perverse. Imagine two deer in the forest, and one of them has a wound, and it wants to wash it in water. But the other deer says, “But I invented the concept of washing it in water, so if you don’t give me something nice to eat, I will not allow you to use my idea of washing your wound!” It seems totally ridiculous. We live in a society with globalization and all the gaps between the rich and the poor becoming ever wider, we keep talking about democracy and capitalism as some sort of a wonderful idea of total freedom and mobility, but if you’re born in the wrong family in the wrong time, you might as well have been born a poor fellah in a totalitarian kingdom. I think it’s much better if there’s some balance between the free market and a socialist government.
IL: Like in northern Europe?
EK: Yeah, like in Scandinavia. I read about this very interesting experiment they did in America. They asked Americans, both very rich and very poor, “What do you think of the gap between the rich and the poor? Would you agree to pay more taxes?” Of course, the rich people said that they didn’t want anything changed, and the poor people said that yes, they wanted higher taxes, health insurance and so on. And then they said to these same people, “Imagine that you can start your life from the beginning again, but you don’t know in which family you will be born, a poor or a rich one. So which kind of society would you want to live in?” And then everybody, both the rich and the poor, voted for a Scandinavian model.
IL: I know that you have been criticized for being too apolitical, so I will ask you a traditional question, which is: How much involvement in politics should a writer have, and how involved are you?
EK: First of all, I must say that I think that as a writer you basically celebrate your own individualism, so I think it’s very natural that some people would be much more involved than others. I really don’t believe in a kind of a writer’s guild law, what a writer should or shouldn’t do. It depends on what kind of writer you are. I’m actually very political. I’m a liberal left-winger and, among other things, I interviewed our prime minister, our right-wing prime minister, and got him into a huge trouble with the State Department. He knows me on a first-name basis, and usually curses after he says my name. At the same time, I don’t go with the Israeli tradition, for example, of endorsing political parties for the elections, which is something I would find disrespectful both to my art and to people. Endorsing a party, for me, has the same morality as endorsing Nike shoes or Pizza Hut. I truly believe my stories are much more intelligent than I am, so I think that if somebody reads my stories, it may make him see the world slightly different, or maybe even affect his decisions. But saying “Hey, I’ve written stories that you like, I have more money than you, I have a beautiful wife, so listen and do what I tell you to do”, doesn’t seem extremely democratic or respectful. It’s both exploiting the stories, and exploiting my readers for something I don’t particularly like. I think that every election, every time I voted in my life, it was choosing the lesser evil.
IL: Isn’t that a characteristic of the contemporary world? It’s the same here, it’s the same everywhere, I think. I don’t know, maybe the American Republicans vote differently, but generally it always seems as choosing the lesser evil.
EK: Yeah! But having said that, I don’t want to tell people to vote for a party in which I have doubt. But in Israel this is considered by some old-school writers as very decadent and idealistic and irresponsible. I also write op-eds for Israeli papers, for the New York Times, Guardian, Le Monde, but I never do it in a kind of dramatic way that is usually expected of me. In many of my pieces I am committed to an idea, but at the same time there is some ambiguity, which people tend not to like in political discourse. It is frowned upon as showing that you are indecisive or whatever. But I think that as an artist, it is my job to show life in its complexity. It seems strange that when I write about politics I’m expected to take complex reality and reduce it. It seems that even Amos Oz, whom I really like and respect, expects something like this…
IL: You must be a mind reader, I was just thinking about asking you about Amos Oz.
EK: When I first started publishing, a lot of old-school writers were against me, but Amos was the person who helped me the most. He would always advocate my writing, and help me in Israel and overseas. And I really really like him. We’re different, but we really like each other. So Amos once said that he has two pens on his table, one with which he writes fiction, and the other with which he writes essays. But I said to him: “Amos, now I understand what you mean, because I write both my stories and essays on one and the same computer.” I really could never write a manifesto. My position is rather that of a court jester in the land of the convinced, of people who basically know what is right and what’s wrong. I think that many times in my essays I’m trying to show reality from a different angle. We live in a very tribal society. We have the left wing and the right wing, and they are very much like football club supporters. You know, the moment that you see somebody who doesn’t support your team, you don’t really listen to them. But if there’s somebody who builds an argument that is not against the way that you think, but just changes the way that you perceive reality, then there may be a chance for change.
IL: I have another traditional question, which you as a person who perceives the complexity of reality may not want to answer: what, in your opinion, would be the best solution to the problem between Israel and the Palestinians – one state? Two states?
EK: My brother is a staunch supporter of the one-state solution. Ideally, I would support it too, but we are living in a reality where two peoples are trying to kill each other. I think that no agreement can turn grudges that have lasted for more than sixty years into a beautiful friendship. That the children of those who a year earlier sent a suicide bomber to kill a family and the children of the soldier who knocked on the door and arrested the grandfather, may go to the same school and become friends is somewhat utopian. I would say that the two-state solution could be a station on the way to a one-state solution, ideally. But we live in societies that are culturally and socially different. I come from Tel Aviv where we hold a world-famous gay parade, but if you go to Gaza, and they know you are gay, you may just end up dead. So I really think that there is something very ambitious and naive in hoping for a one-state solution. I think that many times for people to speak about the one-state solution is a way of not accepting any solution. A two-state solution would be a compromise. And I think that if you’re unwilling for a compromise, but not totally sincere about it, then you would say “I want something I cannot have”. And that is a good way of basically conserving the situation you are in. I really think that many people think the two-state solution would be unfair, but it is the nature of compromises, that they are unfair.
IL: Have you ever been translated in Arabic?
EK: Yes. Actually, I think during the second intifada I was the only writer who was translated into Arabic and published in the Palestinian Authority. I have a very long story about it, but I don’t know if…
IL: Go ahead.
EK: Great. So I think it was in 2002, and I was in Stavanger in Norway where I attended this symposium called “Axis of Evil, Axis of Hope” – a kind of a post-9/11 event. I was supposed to sit there on a panel with two Palestinian writers, and a writer from Boston. It was a panel of writers who write in troubled and violent places. But the two Palestinian writers refused to sit with me on the stage. And the Norwegians, as most Scandinavians who are very afraid of conflict, immediately, but without talking to me, secretly moved me to another panel, it was something like “Women who started writing after giving birth”. Of course it was all very awkward. But I met the Palestinian writers, who were both very nice, and they said “Listen, we like you. But we cannot sit on stage with an occupier”. And they asked if I understood their position. I replied that I don’t understand it, but I respect it. The person who was supposed to give the closing speech was the late Jacques Derrida. He was supposed to talk about something, I don’t remember the topic. But before he came on stage, somebody had told him about the Palestinians and me, and instead of talking about whatever he had prepared, he gave this speech attacking the Palestinians and attacking the Norwegian organizers. And he said to the Palestinians, “You say that you want peace, but if you won’t sit on stage with this little left-wing writer, then how do you expect that your leaders will sit with Ariel Sharon, who is a war-mongering general? Basically, you have stated that you really don’t want peace, and it’s bullshit, you’re cowards.” He was very passionate and aggressive, and a very heated conversation ensued. At some stage, the Norwegians, who were very uneasy wanted to find a way out, so they suggested that maybe we could all have breakfast together: the Palestinians, Derrida and myself. So everyone accepted. At breakfast, Derrida asked me about my writing and he asked if I could provide him with a copy of my book. So I gave him the copy from which I read at events. But then one of the Palestinian writers said “Can I have a copy, too?” And I said to him that I only had one. But afterwards I felt that he didn’t believe me, that he just thought that I didn’t want him to have my book. So I asked the organizers for the Palestinian’s address, and I sent him a copy by mail, in English because he didn’t read Hebrew. He didn’t answer, didn’t write back, and then seven months later I got an email from him. He said: “I really like your book, I translated it into Arabic, would it be ok if I published it?” I said sure, but mentioned that it was perhaps not the best time, what with the Israeli bombardments of the territories and the bombings in Israel. He said, “I don’t care. I think you have a sensibility that people here don’t know. And I think it’s important that they know. I don’t mind if I get into trouble”. He was a very brave man. His son was killed by the Israeli Defence Forces. Every time the book was about to get published there would be another IDF assassination. The publisher said, ok, it’s not a good week, we should do it next week. And at some stage the translator died from a heart condition, and a few weeks later the book came out, and we dedicated it to him. When I talked to the publisher, and asked him how the book was doing, he said, “You know, I don’t know what to tell you. All the copies of the book are going really fast, but I still haven’t figured out if you have so many fans here, or if the Hamas is burning them”.
Luckily, I have met quite a few Palestinians who have read the book, so it couldn’t just be the Hamas.

Keret, Etgar, "A New House in the Old Country", Tablet, 19 October 2012, www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/114506/a-new-house-in-the-old-country#.

Published 17 April 2013
Original in English
First published by Rigas Laiks 4/2013 (Latvian version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks © Etgar Keret, Ieva Lesinska / Rigas Laiks / Eurozine


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