TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we have an interview with Israeli writer Etgar Keret about his collection of personal essays, "The Seven Good Years," in which he reflects on the seven years between his son's birth and his father's death. His father died of cancer at the age of 84 - a long life, considering that, as a teenager, he survived the Holocaust by living in a hole for nearly two years with his parents. Keret's mother is a Holocaust survivor, too.
Keret's essays are about being the son of survivors and being a father, knowing his son and his country face an uncertain future. He also writes about religion and the ways in which it divides Israelis. Keret is a secular Jew but has a sister who's Orthodox. In spite of the subject matter, his essays are often funny, as well as moving. His work has been published in The New Yorker and The New York Times. And he's contributed to This American Life. His books include "Gaza Blues," a collaboration with a Palestinian writer, Samir El-Youssef. My interview with Etgar Keret was recorded a year ago, after the publication of "The Seven Good Years." It was recently published in paperback.
Etgar Keret, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your new collection of personal essays opens with your wife in the hospital in labor. And the staff of the hospital is busy with the incoming victims from a terrorist attack. It almost sounds like a literary conceit because it's such - you know, such - the juxtaposition. But it actually happened to you. How did the terrorist attack and the victims in the hospital affect your experience of your son's birth?
ETGAR KERET: I think that before my son was born, I didn't have a strong sensation for future. I was living in this kind of never-ending present. But the moment that you have a child - that you know that when he'll turn 18, he'll join the Army and go there for three years of compulsory service - then you can't help yourself of thinking about the future - speculating about it, dreading it or even being - trying to be more active to change it and improve it. So I think that becoming a parent kind of made me try to be more responsible. And it made me much more stressful.
GROSS: You are in the hospital while your wife is in labor, and the victims are coming in. You're interviewed by a journalist, who expresses his disappointment that you weren't a victim because he thought, well, a writer will have something interesting to say. And he tells you he's tired of hearing people say, suddenly, I heard a boom, or I didn't know what happened. Everyone was covered in blood. And you say it's not their fault. What kind of original thing can you say about the explosion and senseless death? Is that how you feel as a writer - that about some things, there's almost nothing left to say?
KERET: Yeah. You know, I think as a left-wing liberal living in Israel, I've written many op-eds about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I think I've started writing about it about 25 years ago. And whenever there is another war or there is another violent interaction, you sit down, and you want to write something about it. And your instinct is basically to say, you know, what had changed since the last time I wrote it? You know, it remained futile.
It reminds me of this scene in "One Bird Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest" in which Jack Nicholson says to all the inmates that he's going to lift this kind of heavy object and throw it and break the window, and they're all going to run through it. And he attempts to lift that object, and he can't even move it. And all the other inmates are laughing. And he looks at them and says, you know what - the difference between me and you? At least I have tried. You know, so I feel very much like Jack Nicholson whenever I sit down to write an op-ed. You know, I feel like I'm trying to lift this kind of immovable object - that I'm doing something that is futile. And yet, I feel that I need to keep trying.
GROSS: In another essay in your new collection, "The Seven Good Years," you write about your wife having a miscarriage. And she's hemorrhaging, and she was in very bad shape. And just a few days before that, your father's cancer had returned. And you found out and he found out that he had a cancerous tumor at the base of his tongue. And he was told he didn't have long to live.
So the day after the miscarriage, you're in a taxi. The driver's complaining. You don't want to hear about it. He's also bragging about how he's been driving for 30 years and was never in an accident, though clearly, he had just been in an accident. But he was taking no credit for it (laughter). Meanwhile, he misses your exit on the highway. He pulls over to the side of the road. And then what happened?
KERET: And, well, he didn't even pull to the side of the road. You know, he just - he parked in the right lane of a highway, which is something that, you know, you shouldn't do. And as he stepped outside of the car to ask somebody how to get back to where he wants to get in the first place, I felt a car hitting the taxi in really, really high speed. And the car kind of flew in the air, and when it landed, another car had hit it, so it was kind of a chain accident. And, you know, it was just kind of a perfect way to end a perfect day.
GROSS: So you're rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Did you feel that there was some kind of connection between what happened to your wife - her miscarriage - your father's diagnosis of terminal cancer - and then you survived this horrible accident?
KERET: I think, at the moment, you know, I was pretty busy feeling sorry for myself, you know? And, you know, it was kind of a moment that you feel like kind of a modern Job. You know, you say, well, why does all this happen to me?
And, you know - and to make things even more uncomfortable, my father, my wife and me - we were sent to three separate hospitals, you know? So I couldn't even kind of visit any of them while I was in the ER. So it just kind of felt like an extremely bad day. And I think that the first thought in my mind was, how can I hide the fact that I'm in the hospital from both my father and my wife? Because they had enough on their plate at the moment.
GROSS: Did you hide it from both of them?
KERET: Yeah, I successfully hid it from my father. My wife was too smart. She got me.
GROSS: What injuries did you have?
KERET: Oh, it was just kind of like whiplash, you know? And I had a concussion. It wasn't serious, really. But again, like, it felt more like kind of a metaphor - you know, what happened to the car and what happened to me felt very much like my emotional situation at that stage.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Etgar Keret. He's a writer who lives in Israel. And he has a new collection of personal essays called "The Seven Good Years." So your father was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor at the base of his tongue. And he was given the choice of - do nothing and die within a few weeks, take chemo treatments, which, if successful, could prolong his life a few months, do radiation, which would probably create more suffering than help, or cut out his tongue and larynx. Which did he choose?
KERET: He wanted the doctor to cut out his tongue. And the doctor openly said that they think that he will not survive the operation. But he says they'd be happy to do it because it was a very kind of rare kind of operation. And people usually don't allow you to cut off their tongue. So - you know, so they said, we'll happily do it because we're going to learn a lot and train a lot. But we don't really recommend you to take this choice.
GROSS: So what did he do?
KERET: He insisted. He insisted on having this choice. He said, you know - at the time, he was over 80 years old. And he said, you know what? I - I've talked enough in this lifetime. In my stage, you know, I just need eyes to look at my grandchildren and a heart, you know, to be happy, you know, where - that I am where I am. I don't need - I don't have anything left to say, anyway.
GROSS: So how long did he survive that operation?
KERET: Well, in the end, they didn't operate on him because by the time he was supposed to take that operation, they discovered that the tumor had spread too much. So they couldn't operate anyway. And he accepted that, too. You know, there was something about my father, you know - is that - as I said, I'm kind of pretty good at feeling sorry for myself. And my father - he was a Holocaust survivor. And the fact that he survived the Holocaust always kind of seemed to him - that, you know, something good had happened him. And life since the Holocaust always seemed to surprise him for the better.
And there was no bitterness in him. And he said, you know what? I've been smoking two packs a day, you know, since I was 14 years old - you know, for more than 65 years. And if after that, you know, you get a cancer, you know, it's a fair deal. He says, you know, it's fair. Like, I've got nothing to complain - and I've lived a full life. So I want to live as much as I can. But when I die, you know, I won't go out kicking and screaming.
GROSS: Was it that way at the end - at the very end?
KERET: Yeah, well, my father...
KERET: ...He suffered a lot. But still, even when he was, you know, in the hospital room, connected to machines and stuff, he was still very curious. I remember that basically a day before he had died, he wanted me to explain to him how the Israeli version of "American Idol" works...
KERET: ...Because he didn't know a lot about reality. And he wanted to ask, like, how do they decide who goes to second stage and stuff?
And I remember that there was a certain time each day where the sun would go through these tiny windows that he had in the room and would hit his face. And he would always - like, when someone would come in, he'd say, oh, wow, it feels so good. The sun - it feels so good, you know? And the night - like, a few hours before he had died, he said to me, you know, I think I can't take it anymore. And, like, four hours later - that he died. And when he said, I can't take it anymore, it wasn't physical. It was kind of emotional. Like, he said, like, you know, I can't stand it anymore. I can't keep on enjoying life. And four hours later, he was gone.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Israeli writer Etgar Keret. He writes fiction and nonfiction. His new book is a collection of personal essays called "The Seven Good Years." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Israeli writer Etgar Keret. He writes fiction and nonfiction. His new book is a collection of personal essays called "The Seven Good Years."
So he was a Holocaust survivor - your father - and spent nearly two years hiding in a hole with his parents. And when he was rescued by the Russians, they had to carry him out because his legs had atrophied. You were describing how surviving the Holocaust affected his attitude toward life and death. Your mother was a Holocaust survivor, too. She was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. And she spent some of her formative years trying to sneak out of the ghetto and bring food back to the family. Did the Holocaust affect her and her attitude toward life in the same way it affected your father's?
KERET: You know, actually, I think, in a way, the Holocaust made my father softer and made my mother harder. But I think that there was something about my experience as a child growing up in this house. It was not similar to the experience of most children of Holocaust survivors because, all in all, there was something very wild and happy in the house. And the idea was that my mother, who had survived the war as a child, and my father, who was kind of more of a teenager - they had these kind of fantasies that they're going to stay alive.
They're going to stay physically intact. They're going to find somebody who want to be with them that will be sane enough to have a family and have children. And basically, the fact that they achieved that made them happy. You know, they were like - I don't know. For them, it was like winning the Olympic Games. You know, they've made it. And growing up in such an environment - it was very, very pleasant. You really felt, like, you know, that you got the long end of the stick no matter what, you know? You were alive. You had a family. And I felt this same kind of happiness. You know, I had parents. I had siblings.
And I think that the fact that my mother was orphaned at such a young age also made her raise us in a very unconventional way, doing all kinds of strange things that other families wouldn't do. And she would always apologize for that. And she would say, you know, most people - when they become parents, they look back to their childhood and how their parents had raised them. And if they had a happy childhood, they imitate what their parents did. And if they had a sad one, they do the opposite. But she said, I have no point of reference. You know, I'm just experimenting here, you know? And so many things like, you know, the bedtime stories that I was told to as a child - you know, I really feel that had formed my identity and, I guess, not only made me a writer but made me the kind of writer that I am now.
GROSS: What kind of stories did your mother tell you at bedtime that you think most mothers weren't telling their kids?
KERET: Well, funny thing about it is that she was very good at it. And it was very easy for her to tell the stories. But the stories that stayed with me more were actually the stories that my father would tell me when my mother would be too busy to tell stories. And my father was very charismatic and a very good storyteller. But he couldn't invent anything. So he would tell me stories about things that had just happened, you know?
And these stories would be amazing. And there was sometimes violence in them - many extreme things, you know? But at the same time, they were full of love for mankind. And even, like, the people who would do those extreme things - you would still understand them and like them. And the protagonist in those stories - you know, they would always be prostitutes and mafia guys...
KERET: ...And drunk people, you know? And as a 5-year-old, I asked my father, father, what's a prostitute? And he said to me, well, a prostitute is somebody who makes a living by listening to other people's problems.
KERET: And I asked him, what's the mafia guy? He says, a mafia guy is like a landlord, but he collects money from houses that he doesn't own. And, you know - and I asked him, what's a drunk person? He said, well, it's somebody who has this kind of physical condition that the more liquid he drinks, the happier he becomes, you know? And at that stage, you know, I couldn't really decide if, when I grow up, I want to become a drunk prostitute or a drunk mafia guy.
KERET: But both options kind of seemed very attractive. And when I kind of became 10 or 11 years old, I understood that something was really wrong about the stories that my father had told me. And I kind of confronted him about it. And my father apologetically said to me, listen, when I want to tell you stories, my first instinct would be to tell you stories kind of from my childhood. But what kind of stories would I tell you? How the Nazis had caught my kid sister and tortured her to death, but she would still not tell where I was hiding, you know, or how we spent more than 600 days in a hole in the ground being afraid, you know, that we'll be discovered and killed?
So I kind of fast-forward in my life. And then there was a time where we tried to come to Israel but were caught by the British and were deported back to Europe. And I said, well, no, that's not a story for a kid, too. And then there was this stage in my life before coming to Israel that I joined Irgun, which was an underground for the British. And they sent me to an Italian city to buy firearms for them. And when I was there, you know, the Mafia people had offered me to stay in their whorehouse they owned, you know, so I don't have to pay rent or anything.
And so I stayed there for eight months. And it was the first time in my grown-up life that, you know, I didn't have to hide the fact that I was a Jew - that I met people that seemed kind to me. You know, like, some of them were mafia guys who killed other people. But whenever they killed other people, they seemed - they felt very guilty, you know, and they had a problem with that. It wasn't like the Nazis, you know, in the time of the war.
So he said, I guess - always when I reached that whorehouse period that I thought to myself, you know, this is a story I can tell a 5-year-old. You know, this is a story that has enough kindness in it to tell a 5-year-old. And I must say that those stories for me were always the model for the function of stories and storytelling in our lives, that the idea is that you kind of look reality straight in the face, you know - doesn't matter how ugly it is - and you try to find humanity in it. You try to find beauty in it. You try to find hope in it. So you cannot beautify it. But at the same time, you should find these tiny things that - you know, that would make, sometimes, a very violent and unhappy occasion still human and emotional.
GROSS: We were talking about how your parents were both survivors of the Holocaust - both in Poland?
KERET: Yes. My father was from a part of Poland that now belongs to White Russia, Belarus. But it used to be Poland before the Second World War.
GROSS: Since your father survived the Holocaust literally in a hole and your mother managed to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto - although her parents did not - when you were growing up as their child, did you think that you weren't allowed to experience pain or sadness because your sadness, your pain couldn't compare? It was like nothing compared to what they experienced as children.
KERET: Well, I felt that I was allowed to experience. But I made an extra effort to hide it from my parents, you know? I think that by reflex I felt that - you know, that they had suffered so much that the least I could do would be not to add to the pain that they've experienced in their lifetime. And I think that there's something about these attitudes - that it also kind of pushed me toward writing because what happened was I kind of had this very strong superego that - you know, it started with my parents. But it continued with the entire society - that I was always very much aware of what people wanted of me. And I didn't want to make them feel unhappy.
But at the same time, there was kind of a very strong id under it that wanted all kind of things that I couldn't express. And fiction suddenly became this place where I could write about all my desires, but nobody would have to pay a price for it. Nobody would be unhappy if I would eat five desserts or punch the people who deserved punching or kiss the people who deserved to be kissed, you know? So there was something very liberating about it, you know? Fiction became this kind of, like, padded cell where I could run and hit my head against the wall without kind of causing any harm - not to the wall and neither to my head.
GROSS: My guest is Etgar Keret. After we take a short break, we'll talk about being a secular Jew and having a sister who became Orthodox and how Hebrew became such an odd combination of ancient language from biblical days and modern colloquial jargon. Keret's book of personal essays, "The Seven Good Years," was recently published in paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Israeli writer Etgar Keret. His collection of personal essays, "The Seven Good Years," spans the time between his son's birth and his father's death. He writes about being the son of Holocaust survivors, becoming a father himself at a time when his country's future is uncertain and being a secular Jew with an Orthodox sister. The tone of his essays is often humorous, in spite of the subject matter.
Several people you know, including your sister, have become ultra-Orthodox Jews. So when your sister became Orthodox, a lot in her life changed. And your wife, before she was your wife, when she was still your girlfriend - you couldn't bring her to your sister's house. What was the prohibition against that?
KERET: Well, my sister's Rabbi said to her that it would be a very bad role model for children because when they see us together, you know, they'll ask us if we're married. And, of course, I'll tell them that we're not. And it's kind of a lifestyle that they're not exposed to. And it will bother them a lot. And I must say that, you know, those years before I married my wife were very difficult years in my relationship with my sister. I kind of - I saw her less, you know? I didn't cut our connection. But I said, you know what? If I'm in town with my girlfriend and I can't come with her - so I won't come, you know?
And I think it was very painful for both of us, and it was a very long process for me to understand that when I meet my sister, I have to do some sacrifices. But at the same time - that she's making a lot of sacrifices, too. You know, the fact that she knows that she has a brother who doesn't fast on Yom Kippur or who drive a car in Shabbat - you know, it's not easy for her. It causes her pain. But she's willing to deal with this pain because she loves me enough. And I understood that - you know, that I love her enough, too, you know? I love her enough to make some kind of changes - and that we can meet in kind of - in some kind of a middle point.
GROSS: The ultra-Orthodox Judaism that she practices advises the segregation of genders in many activities in the synagogue. And I think that there's a movement in Israel to even practice segregation of men and women on buses, to separate them at the Wailing Wall. And this is all, like, very controversial. Correct me if I'm wrong on anything before I actually ask you the question.
KERET: Well, the fact about the buses - actually, sadly, the more dominant thing is to segregate Palestinian from Jews, you know?
KERET: But in the Wailing Wall, there is - the segregation always existed, but now there is a movement trying to fight that segregation and to make it more mixed.
GROSS: OK. So thank you for clarifying that. Do you ever feel - and this might be too personal - do you ever feel like your sister has stepped backwards in time, just in terms of all the gender equality that women have fought for?
KERET: Well, I must say, you know, many things about religion - the Jewish religion - the way that my sister practices - annoy me. But I think that if you love each other enough, you can build a bridge over that. You don't have to agree with everything. You don't have to accept anything. When I look at this world, I'm happy that somebody like my sister is in it, you know? There are many liberal left-wingers that I think - that the world would be better off without them, you know? They cheat on their wives. They beat up their kids. They don't pay their taxes. And they hold the same ideas and philosophies that I hold. While my sister - I disagree with her about almost everything. But at the same time, she's a good and positive person who tries and, I think, succeeds to make this world a little better.
GROSS: It seems that even though Israel is a Jewish state - that the religion is such a divisive factor within Israel.
KERET: Yes. But I must say that - you know, that when I look at the ultra-Orthodox, they don't play much in the democratic game. Most of them don't vote. You know, they live in their own neighborhood. And they say, you know, let us live our life the way that we want to. And, no, of course, there are problems, you know, where people say, you know, that because they are poor, they don't contribute much to the country's economy. But, you know, let's say in a worst-case scenario, they're a burden. I have much greater problem with actually more supposedly enlightened, religious Jews who live in settlements and who play in the democratic game and who try to claim that they have some kind of unity with the secular community.
But at the same time, they're basically kind of closet-fundamentalist, religious people who believe that we cannot give any part of Israel because it was given to us by God. And, you know - and by kind of disguising those ideas that are basically fundamentalist religious ideas as something that sounds kind of secularly sound - like saying there's nobody to negotiate with, so you can't make peace with the Palestinians. So those people - I find them more of a threat because for them - let's say their idea is that they - a Jew has a different status than somebody who's not a Jew. And practicing democracy in the same time is kind of an oxymoron.
GROSS: Are you bringing up your son with any religion?
KERET: Well, it's a tricky question, you know? My son was asked in school if we're religious. And he said to the teacher - he said, well, my aunt believes there is a God. And my mother said there isn't one. And me and father - we hadn't decided yet.
GROSS: (Laughter). There's a story that is not told in your new book. But you've talked about it in other places. When you were in the military, there was a period when you were serving on guard and - I think it was like an old atom bomb shelter, like, five stories below ground level - and you were serving with a buddy of yours down there. And he committed suicide while on his shift. He took his life when you left the room. And were you the one who found him there?
KERET: Yes. Yes, I was the one who had found him.
GROSS: You know, when I read about that, I was wondering - like, did you think that he was, among other things - well, I guess, here's what I was really wondering. He probably knew that you would find him there. He probably gave some thought to what impact that would have on your life. And I'm wondering, like, what you thought about that over the years - about what went through his mind when he took his life at a time, knowing that you'd find him.
KERET: Well, you know, what you're talking about was exactly what I felt, you know, when that had happened. I was with all this pain and suffering and loss. I was also kind of angry, saying, why did he do that to me? But I think that we have this tendency to live our life thinking that we are kind of a elite star in the Hollywood movie, you know? It's our name up there, big on the poster and that all the other people are kind of extras. You know, so if we want to take a parking place and somebody parks there instead of us, then he's just bothering us. But actually, this guy has a story, too, you know. He's also looking for a parking place.
And very quickly, I realized that - you know, that when my friend reached the situation where he couldn't bear living anymore and he decided to take his own life, he couldn't take into account things about what his parents would feel like or - what would I experience when I meet him - when I see him - in this room? It was something that - it was just kind of - he wanted out. So I think that there was something about killing himself that came out of, really, this inability to go on living. And very quickly, I learned how not to take it personally and to know that - you know, that he was somebody that I loved - and that he had loved me - and who just couldn't go on living anymore.
GROSS: You started writing in that shelter where you were on guard duty or whatever, like, five levels underground. Was there any connection between his death and your writing?
KERET: Yeah, this place was a computer room. And the thing was that after my friend killed himself, I had to go and have myself checked, you know, to see that I'm kind of sane and I can still do my duties. And I went to this check. It seemed very, very technical. And right after they say, OK, you can have another shift - and I found myself doing a shift in this really tiny room where I found my friend in a pool of blood with the bullet that he shot himself - went through one temple to the other and hit the cabinet behind the seat where we were supposed to sit. So the bullet was still there, you know, in the cabinet. And these were very, very long shifts, you know? It was more than 24 hours long. And you are in a room all by yourself, you know?
And I had, really, this kind of feeling that - I said to myself, you know, I don't know how I'm going to survive this, you know? And I sat down. And I find myself writing my first story. I think that the first story was maybe some kind of attempt - you know, very abstract attempt - maybe to communicate with my friend and to tell him why - on one hand, I understand him. But on the other, why do I want to keep on living? You know, why do I hang on to this life? What do I find in it? And the ability to be able to sit there and write something, I think, made this crazy and extreme situation, you know, as a 19-year-old, bearable.
GROSS: Was your short story that you wrote based on his suicide?
KERET: The story that I wrote was called "Pipes." And it was a story about somebody who could not live in this world. And this guy worked in a pipe company. And he built this kind of very weird pipe that - he believed that if he would crawl through it, he would reach another place, you know? And when he crawled through it, he reached another place in which there were all those kind of people who couldn't stand living in this world. And each of them had to find his own talent to get there.
So there were pilots who had made this loop above the Bermuda Triangle and disappeared or housewives who went through the back of their cabinet, you know, in their kitchen - and finds a way into that world. And I think that when I wrote the story, I was kind of saying to myself, right now, you find the world around you - you know, serving in the Army, losing your best friend - you find your life unbearable. But it's up to you to find this kind of pipe to build these things that would take you to a place where things would make sense. And, you know - and I'm not very good with my hands so I couldn't build a pipe. But I guess writing stories was my pipe. It was my way of kind of getting into a place where things would start making sense.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Israeli writer Etgar Keret. His new book is a collection of personal essays called "The Seven Good Years." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Israeli writer Etgar Keret. His new book is a collection of personal essays called "The Seven Good Years."
In one of your essays in your new book, you tell the story about how you started your relationship with your wife. You'd met her once before. And then you ran into her at a club. And you were on your way out. She was on her way in. And you said to her that you were on your way out, and you had to get up early in the morning. And she said to you, kiss me. You later found out - you were very, very pleased by that response. But you later find out that what she'd really said was, you'll never find a taxi. Now, kiss me and you'll never find a taxi in English are, like, so different, you'd never mistake you'll never find a taxi for kiss me. Do they sound more similar in Hebrew?
KERET: Well, first of all, they don't.
GROSS: They don't. OK.
KERET: But I can say to my defense that, you know, there was very, very loud music out there. And I guess maybe that's what I wanted her to say. So that's what I heard.
GROSS: So then your wife, later (laughter), says to you...
GROSS: ...That - 'cause you say to her later on, I guess after you're married, like, remember that night when you said, kiss me. And then she explains to you, it's not what you said - it's not what she said. What she said was - you'll never find a taxi. And she says that this is how your life together is. You say - she says, our life is one thing. And you always reinvent it to be something else more interesting. That's what writers do -right? - she says to you. Is that what writers do - to take life and make it more interesting? And when you're writing nonfiction, is your responsibility to be more interesting or to be exceptionally honest?
KERET: Yeah, well, I...
GROSS: Both if possible (laughter). Yeah.
KERET: I want to say that, you know - that she said that, you know - that I tell stories as a way to make life more interesting. But I don't think that's true. I think that, you know - that even if she said, you'll never find a taxi, she wanted me to kiss her. I'm pretty certain of that.
KERET: And I think - and I think that, you know...
KERET: ...That maybe as a writer, your role is to mishear things so they'll be closer to what people really want to say and not exactly to hear the words that they utter. You know, I think that writers - it doesn't matter if it's by mistake or on purpose - they can kind of puncture this outside layer and reach the subjects - you know, feel the subjects, sense them.
GROSS: I just want to end with one question about language. You write in Hebrew. Your new collection is translated into English, as well as other language. Can you give us an example of a sentence that you wrote in Hebrew that you wish we could read in Hebrew because it just doesn't translate that well? Maybe it's like an idiom or expression or slang that there's no English equivalent for?
KERET: Well, I write in colloquial Hebrew. And the colloquial Hebrew is very unique. And you cannot translate it to any other language. And the reason for that is the unique story of the Hebrew language. The Hebrew language is an ancient language that about 2000 years ago stopped functioning as a spoken language and existed only as a written language. So Jews in the diaspora were able to read the Bible and understand everything. But they talked to each other in Yiddish and English and French and Greek.
And at one certain point in history, you know, this kind of frozen language was put in the microwave of time, you know? And somebody pressed the button. And suddenly, people started speaking that language. So the effect was very strange because - let's say, if Abraham or Isaac would go in a taxi in Tel Aviv, they could actually communicate with the driver. And the same wouldn't be true for Shakespeare taking a cab in New York. But at the same time, there were 2000 years' worth of words that did not exist, you know - water faucet or microphone - all those kinds of things that people needed to say when they started using the language.
So in the colloquial speech, there is a very strong intrinsic tension between this ancient language and all those words that were made on the spot or imported to it, you know, just so it could function and you could communicate with it. You know, imagine a sentence written that is half the King James Bible and half a rap song. And the idea is that every Hebrew colloquial speech sentence has biblical words and has words that were taken, you know, from English or taken from Arabic or taken from Russian. So I can say two words that are from the Bible and then the word Internet, you know?
GROSS: Right (laughter).
KERET: And the combination sounds very natural. That's the nature of the language. And I think that, also, this is the nature of Israel identity. We have this tension like we're ancient people but a new country. You know, we have many conservative and religious forces in our language and in our country. But we have also many strong liberal and cosmopolitan powers in it. And you can feel this tension with every sentence that you say. And this tension cannot be translated to any other language.
GROSS: Well, Etgar Keret, it's been great to talk with you. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
KERET: Thank you. I really enjoyed that talk, too.
GROSS: Etgar Keret's new collection of personal essays, "The Seven Good Years," was published in paperback in June. I spoke with him a year ago when the hardcover edition was published. After we take a short break, David Edelstein will review the new film "Little Men." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In director Ira Sachs' new film "Little Men," two adolescent boys become increasingly close while their parents grow further and further apart, engaging in a bitter struggle over the lease to a Brooklyn dress shop. The film premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It features Greg Kinnear and Chilean star Paulina Garcia. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In his two most recent films, director Ira Sachs has found a brilliant prism for posing the question - how responsible should we be for our fellow humans? That prism is the New York real estate market.
Consider his 2014 film, "Love Is Strange," which centers on an older same-sex couple, an artist and a Catholic school music teacher played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina who can finally be legally married in New York, but can't afford to keep their apartment when the teacher gets fired by the archdiocese. The men move into different apartments, sleeping on friends' couches and relatives' bunk beds. And when they have a drink at the Stonewall Inn, the irony is bitter. Their cultural horizons have expanded while their economic horizons have shrunk.
In Sachs' wonderful new film "Little Men" the economics are just as stark. An old man dies, and his children inherit his brownstone, the first floor of which is rented out to the dress shop of a struggling Chilean designer and single mother named Leonor, played by Paulina Garcia. It turns out that, given gentrification, she's now paying as little as a fifth the going rate, which didn't bother the old man, who liked her and liked her designs. He also liked her young son, Tony, played by Michael Barbieri, an aspiring actor who dreams of going to LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. The new landlords, however, they're not presented as greedy.
Greg Kinnear plays Brian, a marginal actor married to a successful psychotherapist, Kathy, played by Jennifer Ehle. They have a 13-year-old son named Jake, a gifted artist, played by Theo Taplitz. Jake becomes friends with Leonor's son, Tony. But as the two boys - the little men - grow closer and closer, the tension between the parents over a new lease keeps building. At one point, Jake and Tony vow they'll never talk to their parents again, which gets Brian's goat when he and Kathy are driving the boys to the theater.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE MEN")
JENNIFER EHLE: (As Kathy) Jake, it's your father's opening night.
GREG KINNEAR: (As Brian) Do you two ever think about anybody other than yourselves? Say something, Jake. Say something. One of the hardest things to realize when you're a child is that your parents are people, too. You understand that? They care about things. They make mistakes, that they try to do what they think is the right thing to do. Does any of what I'm saying make any sense to you?
MICHAEL BARBIERI: (As Tony) (Laughter).
KINNEAR: (As Brian) What's so funny, Tony? Why don't you tell me what's so funny, Tony? You think you got it in you to be an actor? Take one rejection after another, we'll see how you react when you don't get into LaGuardia. We'll just see then.
EHLE: (As Kathy) Brian.
KINNEAR: (As Brian) Damn it.
EDELSTEIN: There's a melodramatic structure to "Little Men" - I can't pay the rent, you must pay the rent - but it's buried deep, the way it is in the plays of Chekhov, whom I mention because Brian is acting in a threadbare production of "The Seagull." And if that's not a cue for using Chekhovian, I don't know what is. You can feel the characters struggling against that melodrama. Brian is an artist who's not quite making it. He doesn't want to evict anyone, especially another artist who's not lucky enough to have inherited a house. Leonor, meanwhile, is an unusually self-sabotaging victim. She responds furiously to the idea of even a small increase in her rent.
The director seems to be resisting the melodrama, too. I don't think Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, want to write a movie in which grown-ups like Brian and Kathy crush kids' hopes. That's just the world they see. But they gravitate to the more buoyant elements of the story - Tony's acting class, Jake's drawing. The portraits of the kids - both of them burgeoning artists - suggest a lot of hope for a better world.
As Jake, Theo Taplitz's introspection gives way to an explosion of tears that had me wiping away my own. Barbieri's Tony first struck me as way over the top, but this young actors exuberance turns out to be the key to his character. There's a tangential scene in an improv class that's the highlight of the film, a mirror exercise in which Tony and a teacher scream back and forth in each other's faces. And the kid won't back down, as if acting is Tony's way of saying, I exist. The audience I saw the film with erupted in applause.
Kinnear and Ehle are superb at portraying hopelessly divided characters. And I don't know how to do justice to Paulina Garcia, a big star in Chile. When Leonor smokes outside the store, it's as if she's pouring all her rage and grief into that cigarette. "Little Men" is quietly devastating.
GROSS: David Edelstein, a film critic for New York Magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, Colson Whitehead returns to our show to talk about his new book "The Underground Railroad," a novel about escaped slaves that was described in a New York Times book review as leaving the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible costs of slavery. I hope you'll join us.
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