"“His whole body was completely still, except the wings, which were still fluttering a little, like when someone dies. That's when he finally understood that of all the things the angel had told him, nothing was true. That he wasn't even an angel, just a liar with wings.”
― Etgar Keret
Yesterday as we were driving to an afternoon "Season's Greetings" party, we happened to hear on the radio an interview with an Israeli author whose name, Etgar Keret, sounded vaguely familiar but not anyone I ever read. I mentioned in the past that I do not like to read Hebrew literature with the one exception. Keret seems to be in the same genre as that exception, of writing bizarre, implausible, even irrational plots mixed with mundane recognizable reality, suffused with humour but containing horror and anguish.
As a child, he once recalled in another interview, he avoided crying or displaying any pain; he felt that no pain of his could compare to the suffering his parents had to survive and besides, he wished to spare them additional sorrow. That is why he began to write, he explained: in order to find a "hidden shelter" from life itself.
According to this article, "Keret’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and thus witnessed firsthand one of the most demonic transformations of the past century: the collapse of Germany’s civil society and the rise of Adolph Hitler’s genocidal dictatorship. Keret is fully aware of how his parents’ experience has shaped his world-view, and also slightly dismissive of its impact.
“You know, you go through your life thinking that you carry specific scars that other people don’t have, and then you date somebody whose father was a drunk who beat her up, and you know that everybody has some sort of difficult dialogue with their parents’ history and behaviour,” he says. “I remember that I once came home from school, when I was in elementary school, and I quoted my teacher, who said that anybody who didn’t experience the Holocaust wouldn’t be able to understand it. My father was very annoyed by this notion, and he said, ‘Why did she say that? Do you think that people in the Holocaust had a different set of emotions and feelings than you do?’ And he said, ‘If you know what it means to be afraid, or if you know what it feels like to be hungry, then you can know how it felt. You just have to multiply it a hundred times, and you’ll know exactly how it felt.’ ”In the interview on the CBC radio, he explained that he was the youngest of three children. His older brother taught him to read when he was three years old. This same brother became a Radical Left activist in Israel. His sister went on to "convert" to ultra orthodox Judaism and for a while lived in a religious settlement in the West Bank. Just your typical, mainstream, middle of the road Israeli family.
Here is a short article by Etgar Keret, published on Tablet Magazine. It is a nice illustration of his special voice:
"When I was a kid, I used to try to imagine Poland. My mother, who grew up in Warsaw, told me quite a few stories about the city, about Yerushalayem Boulevard (Aleja Jerozolimskie), where she was born and played as a little girl, about the ghetto where she spent her childhood years trying to survive and where she lost her entire family. Apart from one blurred photograph in my older brother’s history book that showed a tall, mustached man and a horse-drawn carriage in the background, I had no reality-based images of that distant country, but my need to imagine the place where my mother grew up and where my grandparents and uncle are buried was strong enough to keep me trying to create it in my mind. I pictured streets like the ones I saw in illustrations in Dickens’ novels. In my mind, the churches my mother told me about were right out of a musty old copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I could imagine her walking down those cobblestone streets, careful not to bump into tall, mustached men, and all the images I invented were always in black and white.
My first encounter with the real Poland took place a decade ago when I was invited to the Warsaw Book Fair. I remember feeling surprise when I walked out of the airport, a reaction I couldn’t account for at the moment. Later, I realized that I had been surprised that the Warsaw spread before me was alive in Technicolor, that the roads were full of cheap Japanese cars, not horse-drawn carriages, and yes, also that most of the people I saw were utterly clean-shaven.
Over the past decade, I traveled to Poland almost every year. I kept getting invitations to visit and, although I had generally been cutting down on flying, I found it hard to refuse the Poles. Although most of my family had perished under horrendous circumstances there, Poland was also the place where they had lived and thrived for generations, and my attraction to that land and its people was almost mystic. I went looking for the house my mother was born in and found a bank there. I went to another house where she had spent a year of her life and found that it was now a grassy field. Strangely enough, I didn’t feel frustrated or sad, and even took pictures of both sites. True, I would rather have found a house instead of a bank or a field. But a bank, I thought, was better than nothing.
During my last visit to Poland a few weeks ago, for a book festival in another part of the country, a charming photographer named Elzbieta Lempp asked if she could take my picture. I agreed happily. She photographed me in a café where I was waiting for my reading to take place, and when I returned to Israel, I found that she had emailed me a copy of the picture. It was a black-and-white shot of me talking to a tall, mustached man. Behind us, out of focus, was an old building. Everything in the photograph seemed to be taken not from reality, but from my childhood imaginings of Poland. Even the expression on my face looked Polish and frighteningly serious. I stared at the image. If I could have unfrozen my photographed self from his pose, he could have walked right out of the frame and actually found the house where my mother was born. If he were brave enough, he might even have knocked on the door. And who knows who would have opened it for him: the grandmother or grandfather I never knew, maybe even a smiling little girl who had no idea what the cruel future had in store for her. I stared at the picture for quite a while, until my 5-year-old son came into the room and saw me sitting there, eyes glued to the computer screen. “How come that picture has no colors?” he asked. “It’s magic,” I smiled and ruffled his hair."