Etgar Keret is not a tall guy. He’s about my height and I’m not a tall guy. He’s a little guy with a very funny face. He somehow emulates the stereotype of the Jewish intellectual, Woody Allen-like. Shy, but very slick. If you don’t know him you would swear he is not as successful and popular as he really is.
Keret is, in fact, a celebrity. And not only in Israel, where he is currently recognized as the main literary voice of the new generations; but in the world — his work has been translated into 16 languages. His style is very particular and always manages to move you, as in his famous Breaking the Pig, or bewildering, as in Missing Kissinger. He manages, like no other author, in a couple of pages, to immerse you in his absurd, funny, very naive, and too crude world.
With a small group of journalists, we had the privilege of spending almost two hours with Keret, in a small room, forty minutes away from Tel Aviv, talking and puzzling us with his reactions and stories.
Wearing a black shirt, jeans, and sneakers, he told us how he started writing: he, who was never a good soldier, took advantage of the fact that he had been relegated to a position where he did almost nothing, to write a story. None of his comrades wanted to read it and, finally, he took it to his brother, who did not want to receive it at home so early in the morning in an attempt not to make his wife angry and took the opportunity to take the dog out to do its business. After reading Etgar’s story, he hugs him and tells him that he is surprised by the quality of the story. He asks him, “Do you have a copy?” Etgar replies that he does, and then he grabs the paper and uses it to clean up the dog’s poop.
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Keret told us that he builds his characters from his own experiences and that they all, without exception, carry something of himself in their lives. He respects the craft of journalism, as he told us, perhaps so as not to be so crude, but he deeply despises the literary exercise of nonfiction. He himself has written stories based on reality, such as his beautiful book The Seven Good Years, composed of chronicles from the birth of his son to the death of his father. However, he sees no value in recounting what is true.
“Whoever writes nonfiction is not creating anything,” he told us, “he is just telling what he saw. There is no merit in it. If anything, the merit belongs to God, who put the facts in front of them.” Fiction, on the other hand, involves a significant effort on the author’s behalf. The best fictional account will always be to the credit of the writer who made the most effort, who created the best story, from what he imagined, not what he saw.
Immersed in a society strained by conflict, Keret cannot avoid it. He is a celebrity in Israel, and that leads to his political ideas being taken into account and, consequently, a source of controversy. He considers himself a liberal leftist and a good Jewish intellectual, which is why he opts for peace instead of war. He is not afraid to defend his positions without ever falling into intransigence. In the end, he is part of a society where conflicting positions coexist, and his family is an example of this. He has a brother who is an anarchist and a sister who is both ultraconservative and religious.
He expresses his ideas without fear and also refers to such a provocative topic as the cancel culture. In this he is severe: the cancel culture is an attack against creativity and there is no room for interpretation here. The simple consideration of the disappearance of the work due to the author’s vices is a blow, not against the creator, but against the public.
He gave several examples. It would be absurd to ban Nabokov for the pederasty of his characters; Céline for being an anti-Semite (which is remarkable, coming from a Jew), or Chaplin for being a terrible guy. He insists: it is essential to separate the author from his work; otherwise, we will be left without works and, then, without authors.
In short, Etgar Keret is a free man, who never submits to what he should, because that is what society conceives. He is a leftist, but he is terrified of the cancel culture that the left engenders; he is Israeli, but he has serious differences with the politics of his country; he is a celebrity, but he does not understand why, when he goes to a Latin American country such as Mexico, all his fans want to hug him.
“Of course, after reading my stories everyone must think I need a hug,” he told us.