Interview with Israeli author Etgar Keret

Why the world is under threat

Acclaimed author Etgar Keret is often viewed as a traitor due to his outspoken criticism of the Israeli government. Etgar spoke to Sabine Peschel about why he finds Berlin so tolerant and why he'd propose a three-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Early this year, your latest book, "The Seven Good Years", appeared in German. It is a very personal book, dealing with your role as a father and a son: the book begins with the birth of your son right after a terror attack and ends with the death of your father. It was not initially published in Hebrew. Was that so that people wouldn't relate it to you in a very personal way?

Etgar Keret: It was first published in Turkish. There are several reasons why it didn't come out in Hebrew, but the main reason was that my son didn't want it to be. He said he didn't like the situation of meeting people who know more about him than he knows about them.

I'm married to a filmmaker who is the daughter of a famous author of children's books. She told me that when she was a child, it always bothered her that she would meet people and they'd say, "Do you still have your green pyjamas?" or "I know the name of your teddy bear." I asked my son if he had a problem with me publishing the book – and he said he didn't want me to. Then I asked him if he minded my publishing it in another country and he said he didn't know anybody in another country, so I could do whatever I wanted.

One of the first translations was in Farsi. Was the book smuggled into Iran?

Keret: The book was published in Afghanistan, in the Farsi language. Often, when books that have been banned in Iran are published in Afghanistan, copies find their way across the border into Iran. It wasn't my idea, but of course I was very happy when it happened.

That shows how important literature is for intercultural relationships...

Keret: I often say that reading basically exercises the weakest muscle in mankind – which is the muscle of empathy. The moment that you read about someone who lives in a different society, something about the humanity of his situation reaches you. If I read a Palestinian poet I don't think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I think about him and his pain, his suffering and his yearning.I think that there is something about art that brings out the ambiguity of life and puts it in a safe environment where we can contain that ambiguity. In real life we want to know if somebody is our friend or our enemy, but art allows us to deal with more complex narratives.

What is the difference between your literary "I" and Etgar Keret, the writer?

Keret: "The Seven Good Years", unlike all my other books, is not fiction. It is a memoir. In that sense, I think that there are maybe two or three stories in which things are exaggerated, like the one with the telemarketing lady, but I would say out of the 30-something chapters in it, 28 are exactly the way it happened. I think they give a good impression – maybe not of who I am, but who I think I am.

The German translation was done by Daniel Kehlmann, author of the bestselling novel "Measuring the World". How did that come about?

Keret: Since this book was the first book of mine that was translated from English and not from Hebrew, I didn't work with my regular translators. So in each language I had to find a new translator. Because I had read both "Measuring the World" and a couple of interviews with Daniel, not to mention that fact that I had even met him briefly, I had the strong feeling that he would understand the book. He is younger, but not by much. He is a father to a child; you can see that the child is the centre of his attention.

I got his address from a friend and wrote him an email and said, "Look, when I think about a translation, I have a fantasy translator. Like when you make a film and you say, I′d like Anthony Hopkins to be in it. So you are my fantasy translator. I understand you are busy, you do many things, you are not a translator, so feel free to say no. But I couldn't forgive myself were I not to ask."Daniel is a very generous person. I think that when he read the text he immediately connected with it. And busy as he was, he found the time. It was a very selfless act. When you are a writer, you are the centre of attention. One could say that he is over-qualified to translate a text, but with his very natural generosity he immediately said, "I feel very close to the things that you talk about. I'll find the time, I'll translate it." I was delighted.

You are in Berlin to participate in a German-Israeli literary meeting. In one of the stories in "The Seven Good Years", in which you recount a visit to Poland, you say that once you enter Eastern Europe you always feel much more Jewish. How Jewish do you feel in Germany?

Keret: I have a very delicate kind of seismograph for anti-Semitism or racism in general. My wife said that every place we go it takes me five minutes to find the swastika graffiti on the wall. But I must say that there are very few places that I find more liberal and less racist than Berlin as a city and Germany as a country. I think there is something about the shadow of the horrible past of this country and the fact that the country took responsibility for it.

Cover of Keret's memoir "The Seven Good Years" (published by Riverhead Books)

When talking about fair and liberal and open-minded societies, it is easier for me to say that about Germany than to say that about the US or many other countries in Europe. I'm not saying that there are no fascist powers here. I think the difference is that once there was a fascist power in Germany, so the association you automatically have are the Nazis. Because you have this strong association, it makes people much more careful and reserved about it.

Are you worried about the strong right-wing tendencies in Europe? Or in Turkey?

Keret: Turkey and its leadership do all they can to deny the Armenian genocide, while Germany accepted responsibility for its actions. Just compare the state of democracy in Turkey to democracy in Germany. I think that the world in general is going downhill to a place that is much more nationalistic, much more populist, much less liberal.

Freedom of speech is being fundamentally threatened by regimes that are trying to block it. You can see it in Turkey. And to some extent in Israel, too. But the other threat is also from social media, like Facebook. There really is no place of authority. It's ok to create spin and conspiracies. It is very easy to spread xenophobic lies.

The world is under threat. We can see it in the U.S. election campaign – think of Trump′s tone of voice. Sometimes Prime Minister Netanyahu says things you'd expect from somebody in a reality show and not from somebody who claims the position of a responsible leader. It's always easier to scare people than to instil them with confidence. And it's the position of responsible leadership to take unpopular decisions – I actually respect Angela Merkel for the stance she took.

Are you referring to the refugees?

Keret: Cynically speaking, if Angela Merkel had taken a less liberal or less humanistic stand, her political situation would have been better. But as a political leader you are not competing in a popularity show.

What is your take on Israeli-Palestinian relations? Do you hope there will be a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem?

Keret: I had a written exchange with Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua. He asked me, "What is your solution?" And I said, "My solution is the three-state solution: the Israeli State, the Palestinian state and a state for all the people in this region who prefer to kill each other." Let the settlers and the Hamas have their own country and let us live our lives.

As somebody who is an optimist by ideology, I couldn't retain my optimism or raise my child if I had to believe my prime minister, who says that things are as good as they will get, despite the fact that we have another war every couple of years, nobody feels safe and Palestinians don't have their freedom.

Where clashes were once nationalistic, they are now religious. You see that all the wars – whether in Iraq or Syria or the clashes in Lebanon – have become Shia versus Sunni and have little to do with national loyalties. The world is changing. Nationalism is becoming redundant. Today you have companies like Apple and Google that are stronger than most countries and they transcend those countries. It is as if there is an old structure and this old structure can not contain the new reality.

All these changes in the world are totally unpredictable. As such they can scare us for the worst, but they can also surprise us for the better. I actually believe in this current situation that if we had a peace-seeking government in Israel and not the government we have, new opportunities would arise because the old order is changing – and this change can also come to Israel. Where in the past it was all about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now with the massacres in Syria and Islamic State, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer the focus.

I have a prime minister who thinks that because it is not a central issue, it can be ignored. He uses these changes in the Arab world to scare the people. But I equally believe that such change could provide us with an opportunity to break these years of stagnation. Historically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict symbolised the clash between the Western world and the other. But it has stopped being that now.

Because this issue has stopped being a central issue, the ability to negotiate a solution is changing. I think today there are many people in authority in Palestine who are less afraid of Israel and more afraid of fundamental Islamist powers raising their heads. And as an Israeli, I'm much less scared of the Palestinians as a threat than I am afraid of the settlers and right-wing people in my society. I could find many Palestinians who have much more in common with our beliefs, our lifestyle and they would be closer to me than people in my own society, who I see as racist and xenophobic and against freedom of speech. And for a Palestinian living in Ramallah, he probably feels closer to me than to Hamas or IS.

It is said that there are almost 30,000 Israelis living in Berlin. Would that be an option for you?

Keret: I was a guest professor at the Freie Universitat about 12 years ago, so I lived here for a semester. Being a son of survivors, the idea of the state of Israel was always a kind of a dream for my parents. For me, leaving Israel would be admitting that we have lost. That the things my parents fought for all their lives have failed. To be honest, I'm not very generous when it comes to admitting defeat. I'm usually the kind of guy who tries to fight to the end. I can imagine a future where I have to leave Israel for the benefit of my family, but I don't see it now.

I really do believe that the table can be turned and that Israel can once again be the place I grew up in. It can return to being more liberal and having freedom of speech and diversity of opinion. Were I ever to stop believing that, I would probably leave.

Interview conducted by Sabine Peschel

© Deutsche Welle 2016

Etgar Keret began publishing novels, screenplays and graphic novels 25 years ago and his books have been translated in more than 40 languages.

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