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by Elaine Margolin
Reviewed in this essay: The Seven Good Years: A Memoir, by Etgar Keret. 2015, Riverhead Books, 192 pages.
I PREDICTED that Etgar Keret’s new memoir, The Seven Good Years, would be as fearless and creative as his critically acclaimed short-story collections. This Israeli author always struck me as a wild man of sorts, someone who crossed boundaries others couldn’t even see. I was eager to learn more about him, and knew he would offer his readers a close-up and personal view of his inner tumult.
I knew the last years had been difficult for him. He became a father of a little boy named Lev, lost his own beloved father, and suffered through his wife’s recent miscarriage. Life in Tel Aviv has been as combustible as ever, but now he viewed it through a father’s lens. Keret’s short stories are original and complex. He shines a laser on the invisible wounds we all carry that we think no one else can see. I assumed in this memoir he would be shining the laser upon himself.
You can’t forget a Keret story; they hit you in the gut and generally run just a few short pages of compressed magic. I love the one about the bus driver who simply refused on principle ever to open his bus doors for passengers who were even only a fraction of a second late, even with the bus at a standstill at a red light. You could bang all you want on the doors, and he would simply ignore you. His daily riders had grown accustomed to his strict and unyielding ways -- until the day he decided to open the door for a man he saw running because something about him touched the driver's heart in a way the others hadn’t. This man was going to meet a girl, and his date would fail as they always did, but something about the bus driver’s gesture of kindness lightened the young man’s heart; perhaps it was simply the joy of finally being noticed.
Keret was a very depressed young man, serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, when he lost his best friend to suicide. The trauma led to his writing: His first story, "Pipes," written when he was 19 and in the army, is about a man who constructs large industrial curled pipes and then rolls marbles through them to watch them exit the other side. One day he notices that the marbles are no longer coming out the other end, which gives him an idea. He builds a larger pipe and climbs into it so he, too, can disappear. Many of Keret’s stories have such secret hideaways, tunnels, and holes, where one can escape the glare of others and the harshness of the world. They also have a touch of the absurd, and often surprise us with the unexpected kindnesses of strangers. One of them respectfully chronicles the thoughts going through a woman’s mind while she is performing fellatio; another involves a man who finds out that every lie he has ever told has come true.
IT IS HARD to define Keret. He seems like a wiseguy, but sensitive too. He is a vegan and a peacenik, along with his beautiful wife, the actress and writer and director Shira Geffen, but he has admitted in interviews that he is almost always angry. He is wary of anti-Semites and can be confrontational. In Germany he once picked a fight with a drunk German who, he thought, was spewing anti-Semitic slights, only to be told by his publicist that the man was saying no such thing. In Poland, he noticed some graffiti on a crumbling wall. It looked like a Star of David with some unclear slogan written beneath it. He writes, “Is this truth or phobia? Are those semi-anti-Semitic events insinuating themselves into your mind because you anticipate them? My wife, for example, insists that I have a superhuman power when it comes to describing swastikas. It doesn’t matter where we are -- Melbourne, Berlin, or Zagreb, I can locate a swastika quicker than a Google map.”
He is the son of Holocaust survivors. His mother watched her mother and brother die right in front of her eyes, and her father died soon after. She was the lone survivor of her Polish Jewish family and, raised in orphanages, developed a tough veneer. Keret seems like his mother; tough and strong and also vulnerable. His father spent over six hundred days in a hole in the ground in Poland during the war, until Russian troops liberated him. When he was pulled out of the ground, he could barely walk because his muscles had so badly atrophied. Keret carries the burden of his parents’ suffering. He has revealed he was submissive as a child because he could not bear to bring them any more distress. If his mother wanted him to eat, he ate. His compliance took a toll on him. He suffered from asthma and stuttered as a child; the stutter dissipated when he began to write.
The freedom to say what he wished in fictional form was very much an ecstatic form of liberation for him. Perhaps that is why writing this nonfiction memoir seems so difficult for him; perhaps he feels once again like the little boy who has to watch what he says and does so in order not to upset his mother. The result is a self-censorship that inhibits the entire project. The conflict between revealing and concealing duke it out on every page, and deception wins. But the readers lose because we can hear him censoring himself. It all feels too sanitized and tidy and drained of pathos. His insights drizzle into banalities.
FOR EXAMPLE, when he tells us about his older sister, he begins the chapter with his usual bravado, stating: “Nineteen years ago, in a small wedding hall in Bnei Brak, my older sister died, and she now lives in one of the most Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem.” We can hear how hurt he is by his sister’s religiosity, and how it has nearly excluded him from her life. But instead of using his anger and disappointment and running with it, he backs away and tries to explain how somehow it really is all right. He admits he is frustrated she can’t read his work, and that he has a peripheral relationship with her eleven children; his anger flares when he admits that she finds most of what he does frivolous and does not ask him too many questions about how he spends his time; he tries to find consolation in the fact that she is doing fine and he knows she wishes him well -- but we have already stopped believing him. It rings false. If this were one of his short stories, Keret would probably turn himself into a temporary khasid who could visit his sister whenever he pleased and always be met with her full attention and interest. But reality proves far more daunting to describe.
Keret also writes about his older brother, whom he has always idolized. He charts his brother’s unorthodox life journey, from a temporary infatuation with the religious life to a computer-and-math-nerd life to winding up in Thailand with his second wife where he smokes pot and designs websites that attempt to help save the world. One senses Keret feels overlooked by this long-distance older brother -- and again, if this were one of his short stories, Keret might turn himself into a gigantic joint that never burns down, which his brother could rely upon for sustenance. Instead, Keret's feelings go largely unexamined.
Even about his marriage, Keret is cagey. He talks about arguments he has with his wife, particularly about whether their son Lev should one day serve in the Israeli Army. His wife is vehemently opposed, Keret less zealously so, even a little uncertain about their responsibility. He writes that he often handles disagreements with his wife by remembering: “Experience has taught me that there are some situations in which it is better to be quiet.” This sounds disingenuous.
There is a charming chapter about Lev, in which the boy accidentally flips an ash tray in a taxicab and the driver screams at him. Keret defends his son and yells at the driver to keep driving and leave his son alone. The boy insists that his father apologize to the driver for yelling at him. Keret does so, hoping to quiet things down. But then Lev demands that the taxi driver also apologize to him since he yelled at him for knocking over the ash tray. Keret, feeling nervous and exasperated, tries to explain to Lev why this was not a great idea, saying “Sweetie, you’re a smart little boy and you already know lots of things about the world, but not everything. And one of the things you still don’t know is that saying you’re sorry might be the hardest thing of all. And that doing something that hard while you’re driving could be very, very dangerous. But you know what? I don’t think we have to ask the driver to say he’s sorry, because just by looking at him, I can tell that he’s sorry.” But Lev will not be silenced and explains to his father that he still cannot tell if the driver is sorry and wants to hear it from him directly so he can be sure. Suddenly, the taxi driver lurches the car off the road and the red-faced cab driver sticks his head into the back seat about an inch from Lev’s face, and whispers, “Believe me, kid, I’m sorry.”
IT FEELS STRANGE to see Keret back away from what we sense he wants and needs to tell us. In The Seven Good Years, he seems scared, tired, almost timid, and drained of the energy that ignites his other work. I missed him here, and felt unaccustomed to listening to him try to accommodate other people’s expectations. Keret’s genius is rooted in his fierce audacity about confronting the grotesque indignities that visit every life. That he would shy away from his own is unthinkable.
I hope he tries again.
Elaine Margolin is a freelance book critic who has written for the Jerusalem Post, Los Angeles Jewish Journal, Jewish Currents, and several other newspapers and literary journals. She works from her home in Hewlett, Long Island.