Etgar Keret's memoir opens an odd, alluring window into life in Israel

Etgar Keret doesn't write commentary on Israel, but politics simmers in his new memoir

If I could get you to read one writer, it would be Etgar Keret.

His impossible blend of humor and tragedy, cynicism and empathy as well as big-hearted narratives that occupy the tiniest of page counts make him one of my favorites. Maybe one of yours.

"The Seven Good Years" is Keret's first book of nonfiction, after five collections of surreal and wonderful short stories. The writing here reveals that some of the strangeness Keret works into his fiction comes from the unique way he sees the real world: a little bent, exasperated, amused and yet also with deep wells of kindness.

The book is roughly chronological, spanning the seven years between his son's birth and his father's death. Given that year seven begins with an installment called "Shiva," it's clear that the "Good" of the title is a bit wry — but then again, who knows? Maybe things will get worse.

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Keret's son arrives during a terrorist attack on Tel Aviv; at the hospital, the author is recognized by a journalist reporting on the victims. When he explains that he wasn't at the scene, the reporter complains that he was hoping for a fresh perspective, because he always hears the same bombing stories. "It's not their fault," Keret tells him. "It's just that the attacks are always the same. What kind of original thing can you say about an explosion and senseless death?"

"Beats me," the man replies. "You're the writer."

That's a funny exchange but also Keret's mandate; he does, in fact, find something original to say in the 35 pieces that follow (in fewer than 200 pages — as always, his writing is brilliant and short). This material was originally published in magazines and newspapers and, as columns are asked to do, deal with the issues at hand. These include a new offensive toward Gaza, what his son said in the bath and flight delays while getting to far-flung literary festivals.

For this reason, some of the essays that touch on Israel's political situation may feel remote, even dated — yet simultaneously the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has loomed so large for so long that Keret's politics may be important to some readers. He's an Israeli who is often critical of his nation's conservative leaders, someone who wishes there were a way toward peace; he's not writing commentary, but politics simmers in his work.

That it does this while he's ostensibly writing about playing "Angry Birds," arguing with taxi drivers, running across a Swede in Bali or spending a night in the Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art is a testament to how far-ranging Keret can be and how quickly his prose can take a surprising turn.

Take the many-faceted "Jam" as an example. It starts with the author in Warsaw, trying to explain to a waitress in his nonexistent Polish that he has just spent the night in a 47-inch-wide space that he calls "home." A Polish architect, inspired by Keret's minimalist prose, had seen a tiny gap between two buildings in the city and "that gap," he writes to Keret, "told me that I had to build you a house there."

Keret dismisses the architect's inspiration, "which I filed away in my memory under 'Unclear Practical Jokes.'" The architect, however, is persistent, finally sending a drawing of "a narrow, three-story house." Keret brings it to his mother, who recognizes the location: She used to pass it while smuggling food into the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. Born in this city in 1934, she survived the Holocaust, but her family did not. Although she has never returned, she is proud of her son's literary success there — which brings us back to Keret, whose name is now part of the street as a component of this strange and silly art project, its presence revealed as a monument to those who were lost.

Born in Israel in 1967, Keret exists in between. He's not a victim, but as an Israeli he's under threat of violence, even as he sees Israel visiting its own destruction on Gaza. What's his place in that cycle? What can he do? He tells stories. Like the one he shares about what happens when an air-raid siren catches his family driving and they must pull over to the side of the road and lie on the ground for safety. His son will not oblige. Instead of scaring him and telling him about the danger, Keret plays a game: Pastrami sandwich, where the family lies in a pile, Keret on top. If the bombs ever stop falling, his wife promises the boy, they can still play.

The Seven Good Years: A Memoir

Etgar Keret
Riverhead: 172 pp., $26.95

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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