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Etgar Keret: Deadpan yet mellow (photo: Ania Kaim)

The first time I came across the Israeli short-story writer Etgar Keret was through a comment he made about Franz Kafka. When Kafka died in 1924, he left his diaries, manuscripts and letters with his friend Max Brod, and ordered him to burn them unread. Instead, Brod released The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, turning Kafka into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. But many manuscripts remained unpublished and Brod had to flee Prague in 1939, taking a suitcase filled with Kafka’s writing. Eventually Brod bequeathed the archive to his secretary. She left it with her daughter, a cat lover, who stored it in her apartment until a court ruling in 2012. At the time, the New York Times asked Etgar Keret what Kafka might have thought of this situation, and he replied: “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughter who keeps it in an apartment full of cats, right?”

This kind of deadpan humour in the face of life’s absurdities is quintessential Keret, who considers Kafka his greatest influence. Keret is widely celebrated for his short-story collections, including The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories (2004) and The Nimrod Flipout (2006). His short stories are quirky, surreal and eerie. They’re often told in fragments.

In contrast, Keret’s most recent book, The Seven Good Years, which is a memoir and his first work of non-fiction, is much more mellow and cohesive. He chronicles the seven years between his son’s birth and father’s death. Just as in his previous books, Keret’s voice reads like that of an old friend in these 36 self-contained, enchanting and captivating stories.

We accompany Keret on his travels to readings and book festivals. He loves flights, because on a plane “there’s no real time or real weather, just a juicy slice of limbo that lasts from take-off till landing”. At book signings he likes to make up dedications like “To Sinai. I’ll be home late tonight, but I left some cholent in the fridge” and “Bosmat, even though you’re with another guy now, we both know you’ll come back to me in the end” until the latter gets him into trouble.

Keret’s son Lev is born on the day of a suicide attack. At the hospital Keret meets a reporter who is disappointed that Keret did not see the attack, because a reaction from a writer, “someone with a little vision”, would have been good for his article. “After every attack, I always get the same reactions,” laments the reporter. “‘Suddenly I heard a boom’, ‘I don’t know what happened’, ‘Everything was covered in blood’. How much of that can you take?” he asks Keret, who takes the reader right into the most painful reality on a day that is at the same time one of his life’s most joyful.

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