Interviews Etgar Keret on Tradition, Translation, and Alien Toasters

Adam Rovner interviews Etgar Keret as part of WWB's month-long discussion of Etgar Keret's Girl on the Fridge. You can find links to other posts and essays in this series at the bottom of the page, and feel free to join in the discussion in the blogs, all this month.—Editors

Adam Rovner: Readers seem to be drawn to Israeli literature because of their interest in the political conflicts of the Middle East. Yet your work is only obliquely political, and you yourself don't have a political profile. Why do you think readers in so many countries are drawn to your predominantly apolitical work?

Etgar Keret: First of all, I do think my work is political, and I do think it relates to the situation here. But it's all a question of "foreground" and "background." I think there's something about the Israeli reality that's always behind everything, that's always animating my characters. This reality can be anxiety-ridden, xenophobic, very unstable, and my Israel isn't the postcard version, it's not an Israel of camels and kibbutzim. Let me give you an example from my story, "Your Man" [The Nimrod Flipout]. At some point in the story the character says, "I banged the door, like in the army…" In American literature, no one would write, "I banged on the door like I did in N.Y.P.D. or Miami Vice." Because the average American has never banged on a door in this aggressive way. But most Israelis know what this means. For me this distinction is critical to the Israeli experience. To me this is much more significant than writing something explicit in which there's an Israeli, a Palestinian, and a Holocaust survivor. People have been writing about these things to the point that it's become something of a cliché. To me reality is what is in the back of your mind, it's not what's right in front of your eyes. These kind of details reveal Israel's realities.

AR: So the conflict does influence your work, but not always directly?

EK: I always say that a guy doesn't get up in the morning here and think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He thinks, "Why doesn't my girlfriend love me, why don't I have a job, why did my car get towed." He might think, "Why don't I have job? Because tourists aren't coming. Why aren't tourists coming? Because of the terror attacks. Why are there terror attacks? Because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When is this ever going to get resolved?" When you look from outside of Israel, you only see the conflict. When you're living here, you have to get through a lot of layers to get to the conflict. Because on a day-to-day level, you don't live the conflict, you live. You know, you go into a café but you don't sit near the window, so if there's an attack the glass won't shatter in your face. It's like your day-to-day life is universal, but how you navigate it is always informed by the conflict.

AR: You've collaborated with Palestinian writer Samir El-Yousseff on Gaza Blues, a volume titled after the name of a short story appearing in The Girl on the Fridge. Do you think literature can help bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide?

EK: The rift is so deep that I don't think literature can play a significant role. What I can say is that The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God came out in Ramallah, from a Palestinian publishing house. And I received a lot of feedback from people who read it in Arabic who said it changed their thinking about Israelis and Israel. From their perspective there's something very monolithic about Israelis—they see us as very sure of ourselves and ruled by ideology. But they saw in my characters a confusion, a kind of loser figure, frightened.

AR: So translation into Arabic was important to you?

EK: It was very important to me. I think it's the only translation that was done from the English and not from the Hebrew. So you see, even here we needed America as a middleman. I'll also tell you it's the only translation I agreed there could be changes to for specific things, because of a desire, or a need, to respect the culture of the readers. So, for example, when there were words like kus [pussy], I was asked if they could soften the language and I agreed. For this translation I was much more flexible in order to bring it to Arabic readers.

AR: Was your involvement in that translation unusual then?

EK: I'm involved in probably ninety percent of the translations on different levels. I answer questions by mail, by email. Most of my translators are in close contact with me, and the more they are, the happier it makes me.

AR: How closely do you work with your English translators?

EK: We speak a lot, because English is the only language other than Hebrew I can really read. But I trust their intuitions much more than my own. Sometimes I can explain things to them that aren't obvious in the text.

AR: Israelis obviously read your work in Hebrew and are familiar with the social and cultural realities you portray. Can English-speaking readers have access to Israeli reality through your work?

EK: I think that someone who is not Israeli will always read my work differently. I often write things that connect everyday reality to what you might call a fantastic or surrealist "reality." I think an Israeli reader always knows what level of reality he's reading in my work. But in Germany when my book Missing Kissinger came out, one reviewer made a list of all the fantastic elements in my work, you know, dwarves, animals that speak, and all sorts of things like that, and then lower down the list they mentioned my depictions of people walking around armed in the street, or listening every hour on the dot to the news. To them it seemed as fantastic as a talking dog.

AR: Hebrew is crucial to your work. Do you imagine aspects are lost in translation from Hebrew to English despite the excellence of your translators?

EK: I agree with you completely about the importance of language to my work. One of the things I always talk about is how I switch between extremes of register. This is something very natural to the Hebrew language. Its basis is biblical, but then you have all this contemporary slang mixed in. In Hebrew this is accepted. Some difficulties in translation are not always in the text itself, but in the structure of the language. So it's clear to me that many things are lost in translation. And the translators tell me this, it's not just me, they tell me this themselves.

AR: But your work still manages to reach a large, worldwide audience.

EK: There are writers I've read in translation too, like Kafka. There're many things I've been exposed to through translation. I'm happy I can read them somehow, but I'm sure things are lost.

AR: You mentioned Kafka, do you feel you are working within a Jewish literary tradition?

EK: The writers who most influenced me, most of them at least, were Jewish writers, like Kafka and Isaac Babel. I definitely feel a connection with Jewish literature, and in a lot of ways I feel I have more in common with this Jewish literature than I do with Israeli literature. And I think I was very influenced by Sholem Aleichem too.

AR: What about modern Hebrew literature? Do you feel close to other Israeli writers?

EK: I think that American writers like Nathan [Englander], or [Jonathan] Safran-Foer, or Todd [Hasak-Lowy] are closer in some respects to my mindset, my emotional state, than many Israeli writers my age. Some of Todd's work shows he really understands Israelis. Of course he's looking from the outside, but it demonstrates he really knows Israelis and the culture.

AR: How do you explain your connection to these Jewish-American writers?

EK: I guess there's something about me, I feel a bit like an immigrant. I never feel like I entirely belong. My wife's family, for example, have been in Israel for generations. They know exactly what their place is. But for me, I feel a bit like a "Jew in the Diaspora in Israel." My view on society is that of someone who's a bit of an outsider, of someone who can't take his position in society for granted. I always have the feeling of being in the minority. I don't know, does this make sense to you? Can you identify with this?

AR: Actually, yes. I immigrated to Israel and lived there for a number of years, so I know just what you mean. Of course, I wasn't meant to belong, I didn't grow up in Israel like you.

EK: In terms of getting along, there's no problem for me. It's not like I have an accent or anything, but on some internal level it's like, "you can take the boy out of the shtetl, but you can't take the shtetl out of the boy." This kind of sentiment is something I feel is present in Nathan as well. That's one of the reasons I connect with him, with his work. But most Israeli writers of my generation have a very deep sense of belonging.

AR: Am I right in sensing a link between your work and Hasidic tales?

EK: Yes, the Hasidic tales I know because of my sister; my sister became very religious. She's a member of a Hasidic sect—the Breslov Hasidim.

AR: So she pointed you to the tales of Reb Nachman after she became religious?

EK: When someone close to you becomes very religious, it's difficult. She and I both looked for some common ground. I write stories, I love stories. So I read the stories of Reb Nachman and I really loved them. I think my story, "The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God" is really a Hasidic tale. They always contain multiple meanings, they're ambiguous. My stories aren't didactic, there's no "bottom line," but they absolutely do use my way of looking at the world to speak about life.

Also, most of the time my characters don't possess a complete psychology, at least not like Dostoevsky's characters. Frequently they represent an emotion, or an aspect of human consciousness, so sometimes a story can function like an ant colony or a multi-cellular organism. All the characters together create the consciousness, instead of an individual character representing a consciousness in the realistic manner. Now, I think that is the kind of rhetoric that is very much acceptable in Hasidic tales.

AR: But doesn't something of the meaning of the Jewish religious tradition get lost when transposed to the secular Israeli present?

EK: In Hasidic tales it's not about finding God, it's about searching for God. And this search is present in our society. There's nothing in my stories that is really opposing God's existence, it's just that I haven't found him yet. That's something that's very present in my work. All my protagonists clearly feel that there is something beyond their material existence. There's something that humanity hasn't succeeded in finding. It's as if we've found some very advanced piece of alien technology, and all we've figured out how to do is use it as a toaster. So you see, there's a strong feeling I have, that my characters have, that there's something else out there.

AR: It's interesting that you're very popular in Poland, a place where Jewish tradition was almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust, or the Shoah as it's known in Hebrew.

EK: Outside of Israel, the place where I'm most successful, the place where my work is most valued, is Poland. So naturally I go there. But Poland is a place my parents have refused to return to, because of personal reasons, because of memories. My mother lost her parents and her brother there during the Shoah, so she doesn't want to go back. But when I go there, and I don't want to say I feel at home, but I feel very comfortable. I feel that people there really connect to my writing, my perspective, my humor. When my mother read one of my books in Polish translation—Polish is her mother tongue—she turned to me and said, "You know, you're not an Israeli writer. You're a Polish writer in exile."

AR: I know your parents are both survivors of the Shoah. Can you discuss how this personal background impacted you?

EK: The Shoah is something that very much interests me, that disturbs me. I grew up in Ramat Gan, which is a city where most of the inhabitants are descended from Iraqi immigrants. For them, the Shoah is something you learn about in school, it's not a personal experience. There's a huge gap in the way I acquired information about the Shoah compared to other people in my school, who learned about it from ceremonies, from teachers. But being the son of survivors, well, that gap in experience is something that caused me a lot of disquiet. As a kid you don't know what the reality is. Is it what you learn about in school, or what you hear about at home? If there's any disagreement between these two, that can really cause a lot of difficulty when you're a kid. In school, we always learned how Jews died in Europe, but never learned how they lived there.

It's like the Shoah has a symbolic power, but not a concrete, or human side. This is the opposite of what I learned at home, like when, for example, my father would tell me a funny story about something that happened in the ghetto. Also, as a second-generation son of survivors, I have this "ideology" of always wearing sneakers, because you never know when you'll need to run quickly.

AR: But you have asthma, how can you run?

EK: I don't run far, but I run fast. I sprint—just look at my stories.

Adam Rovner is an assistant professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver. He serves as the Hebrew translations editor for Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Adam's articles, essays, and translations have appeared in a number of academic and general interest publications.

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Links to other essays and blog posts in this series:

Keret events this March in Boston and Chicago.

Adam Rovner puts Etgar Keret in context.

Miriam Shlesinger talks about translating Keret.

Phillip Lopate discusses the roots of Keret's work.

Adam Rovner on Reading Keret: Front Line of the Hyperreal.

Nicolle Elizabeth reports on our Keret event at the Idlewild bookstore.

Photos from the event.

The video from the Idlewild Event

Adam Rovner talks about "An Exclusive"

The Art of Big Things: Todd Hasak-Lowy on Reading Keret

My Favorite Keret Story, from Bud Parr

Translating the Funhouse: Adam Rovner on Reading Keret

Moshe Ron and Hannan Hever discuss finding Etgar Keret.

Resources for further reading (and viewing) on Etgar Keret.