Interview

Etgar Keret: The Ambivalence of the Wall

Best-selling Israeli author Etgar Keret has often been critical of his country's political stance against the Palestinians. In this interview with Siegrid Brinkmann he talks about violence in Israeli society and the ambivalence of the Middle-East conflict.

photo: BR Online
Etgar Keret, the country's national conscience, according to some

​​In his mid-thirties, Etgar Keret has become a popular voice in Israeli literature and cinema. His latest work is called "The Nimrod Flip-Out", and his most popular novel to date is called "The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God".

Like with all comic writers, hilarity and anguish form the foundation for his work, resulting in a wickedly funny, shockingly honest series of portrayals of life and the after-life.

Keret's short story collections have sold more than 100,000 copies and over 40 films have been based on them. He currently lectured at Tel Aviv University's Department of Film. Siegrid Brinkmann spoke to him.

Do you believe Israeli society to be one of the most violent societies?

Etgar Keret: I think you can encounter violence in many different ways; it doesn't always necessarily have to do with Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Often it has to do with the way people speak, the way they express themselves or even the way they drive.

And I think it's very natural that when someone is three years in the army and he spends his time in cities in which he's hated and in which he is, you know, an occupier, and he has a very violent dialogue with the people there, that you cannot just automatically, when you come home, pull the switch and quickly become a tender and peaceful person.

Do you think it's wrong to confront people who are as young as 18 or 19 with such dangerous situations as in the Israeli army?

Keret: It's not a mistake, because it's a necessity, you know, the army is a necessary entity. You can question the actions of the army or you can disagree with anything the army does, but the existence of the army is really very important.

And I must say that the army also has a good feature in a sense that it is a meeting point for people from all over society. So when you are in the army you can be in the same tent with the president's son or somebody who works in the market, so in that sense it also works as some sort of an equalizer.

How can one as a writer work against violence?

Keret: I think that the ability of a writer to influence society is very limited, but I also think that, mostly, what a writer can do, is to actually show that violence. Because I think that a lot of people who live in the Israeli society actually don't know that it is a very violent one. It is like living in a blind spot, a lot of people tend to ignore the darker sides of their society. And as a writer you can put a mirror in front of society and you can show things as they are.

And in Israel, at least, what you see is what you get. It's not always beautiful, but it's always there, and people don't hide the dark side of the society.

What is "The Nimrod Flip-Out" about?

Since the beginning of the second Intifadah, I had been wanting to write about casualties, about people who died in suicide bombings. I know people who died, and I tried to deal with it. But it was very difficult because I just couldn't find the right tone.

Every time I started to write about it, I would always revert to clichés. You know, I would write about "unbearable grief", "unbelievable tragedy", those words that people always use when they talk about the situation, without really telling us something about the situation.

It's like a block, it's like a wall of words that really means nothing.

So it took me two year to write this story, and the only thing that helped me write it was that I took a pathologist as a hero. And as an intellectual in the Israeli society, I feel very much like a pathologist myself.

A pathologist must have a very good diagnose of his patients and of the situation – what caused the death, what were the reasons, and what was really going on? But unlike a doctor, a pathologist can't help his patient anymore, his patient is beyond help. And this is sometime how I feel about the situation. I can see what's wrong, but I cannot help it.

The story doesn't really decide what would have been the right thing to do, because the situation in the book, just like in real life, is very ambivalent, very, very ambivalent. And you feel very ambivalent yourself.

Living in the Israeli society, I feel sometimes a very strong resentment to what's going on around me, yet at the same time I feel a strong connection and empathy for what's going on.

For instance, when you look at the issue like the fence, then I must say that politically I am totally against it, because it is a sign of desperation. But when people argue in favour of it and say it could actually save lives, it's very difficult for me to stand firm, because although I am against it, I have a strong empathy for the people who are for it. So therefore the tone in my story is always ambivalent, because the situation just isn't as clear as it might seem to some.

Interview: Siegrid Brinkmann

DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE © 2004

Homepage Etgar Keret

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