Life’s Strange Inventions in Etgar Keret’s Memoir ‘Seven Good Years’

Etgar Keret - Seven Good Years

In the title story of the Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s short story collection Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, the narrator’s home is invaded by armed men who insist that he tell them a story. Understandably too nervous to invent anything, the narrator offers a literal recounting of what is happening to him. His captors are not pleased. "Don’t you go and dump reality on us like a garbage truck," one of them says. "Use your imagination, man, create, invent, take it all the way."

This advice may be presented in the most hostile possible way, but Keret has become one of the world's greatest living writers by following it, writing fabulist tales that could never be taken for strict autobiography, even when, as above, they play with an autobiographical persona. In a literary climate that can feel oversaturated with true stories even to someone like me who enjoys true stories enough to contribute to a site called Signature, Keret’s stories are a joyous relief, reminders that the truest stories are often the ones that could not happen.

So, when suddenly a knock on my door announced the arrival of an advance copy of Keret’s new memoir, The Seven Good Years, I felt some trepidation. A glance at the table of contents revealed that Keret had stuck to the short vignettes (rarely more than five pages) that give his fiction the intensity of the best jokes and the worst dreams, but surely none of these vignettes would contain (as does a story in his collection The Girl on the Fridge) a wife who uses Crazy Glue first to suspend herself upside down from the ceiling and then to affix her straying husband to her lips.

In fact, nothing like that happens -- Keret’s relationship with his wife, the filmmaker Shira Geffen, is clearly a warm and loving one, even when they squabble over the proper answer to give when asked on the playground whether their three-year-old son will serve in the Israeli military when he turns eighteen. But the absurdity of that situation demonstrates that adhering to the truth does not make Keret’s writing any less fantastic in any sense of the word.

It would not exactly be accurate to say that Keret mixes the personal and political, since they have already been mixed for him. His son is born on the night of a terrorist attack, so the hospital staff scurries between attending to his wife, to the victims, and to their own immediate whims. (This gives the book its terrific opening sentence: "'I just hate terrorist attacks,' the thin nurse says to the older one. 'Want some gum?'") In another piece, an architect builds a tiny house for Keret in Warsaw, the city where his mother was born and sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. (She is the only member of her family who survived the Holocaust.) In the final piece, Keret and his wife shield their son literally and figuratively from a rocket attack by playing a game of "Pastrami Sandwich." Throughout the stories, symbols of writerly success -- Keret's prominent spots at literary festivals -- are haunted by reminders of ghosts of World War II and lingering anti-Semitism.

Most of these stories recount events that, in the least relevant sense, "happened," but one story, "Bombs Away," stands out as a fable. On a tip from Keret’s best friend that Iran will soon launch a nuclear strike against Israel, Keret and his wife stop doing the dishes and taking out the garbage, they take out a large loan on the theory that they will never have to repay, they make plans to visit hated relatives for Pesach on the theory that the holiday will never arrive. Keret then has a terrifying dream that Iran and Israel are making peace, a dream that leaves both him and his wife shaking with fear. It seems highly unlikely that Keret and his wife, both prominent leftists, ever experienced anything like this, and yet the story gets at something plainly and deeply true about the cocktail of fear and perverse wishfulness of living under the threat of annihilation.

In another story in the collection, about the way that Keret and his wife met, passing her on his way out of a nightclub, he thinks she says "kiss me"; what she actually says is "you’ll never get a taxi."

"Our life is one thing," she says long after they are married, "and you always reinvent it to be something else more interesting. That’s what writers do, right?"

It is. Much of this book is about what it means for Keret to become a father and slowly lose his own -- the end of the title’s "seven good years" comes with the death of his father -- and Keret says in an interview with Miranda July included in this volume that a trait he has inherited from his father is "interest in people and a reluctance to pigeonhole them." He then goes on to recount a story about his father seeking parenting advice from a man he believes is a child psychologist; upon learning that the man is in fact a plumber, he says "Well, he gave us good advice." I was reminded of this several times while reading this book. In "Bombs Away," when Keret realizes that imminent destruction is not in the offing and that he will have to attend to adult responsibilities, the first thing he does is call a plumber, and after the death of his father, a glitch in his hotel's plumbing soaks his shoes and forces him to wear his father's. Keret is indeed as uninterested as his father in pigeonholing, and whether his stories are "true" or "fabulist," they range from merely superb to transcendently beautiful, and there is almost never a leak to be found.