Etgar Keret Keeps Disaster Away

Article by ben

by Benjamin Rybeck

No stranger to the peculiarities of domestic life, Donald Barthelme once wrote a story called “Chablis.” Yes, Chablis is what the narrator—a husband and father—finds himself drinking early one morning while thinking about his family. He has a young daughter who loves her mother more than her father, and he has a wife who wants to get that young daughter a dog. A dog? What does the girl need with a dog? Isn’t her father fun enough? At the end of the brief story, the narrator recalls a moment years ago when, while driving drunk, he swerved to avoid hitting someone else. Everything worked out fine. He feels proud to have kept disaster away.

In March of this year, Israeli writer Etgar Keret discussed “Chablis” on The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast—discussed his affinity for the whole of Barthelme’s oeuvre, in fact—and now, with THE SEVEN GOOD YEARS, he seems to have written his own version of “Chablis,” a memoir told in fragments, each miniature chapter a portrait of a moment or series of connected moments in his life as a father and husband. The title refers to the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, and it’s initially difficult to tell how seriously Keret wants us to take this word, “good.” What’s so good about years where Keret and his family, residing in Tel Aviv, live with terrorist bombs exploding in the background? Well, this is the whole point, in a way—or at least what makes the years “good”: yes, the danger is out there, but like narrator in “Chablis” who avoids disaster somewhat inadvertently, so does Keret. The good years are the ones when the chaos stays outside.

The novel’s first words are spoken by a nurse in the hospital where Keret’s son is being born: “I just hate terrorist attacks.” Then, this same nurse offers another one some gum. The profound violence of terrorism is normalized here; this woman seems to hate it with the casual air of somebody bitching about traffic or a particular phone company’s cellular reception. Keret’s family lives with the same air of normalcy: in these portraits of everyday life, the author is irreverent about his family, his career, his safety, laughing about domestic squabbles even as the bombs go off outside. This irreverence is the book’s most appealing aspect, because in irreverence hides humanity; if you love the world, then no matter how bad it gets, it’s worth laughing about.

Nevertheless, the larger reality doesn’t stay away entirely. First, it sneaks it almost comically. In one instance, a game of Angry Birds becomes an occasion to discuss global terrorism and what it unlocks in people’s psyches (“So, this might be a fun, controlled way of learning that not only birds or terrorists get angry, but so do I”). In another instance, Keret’s son excuses bad behavior by claiming to be a cat, and Keret wonders about corrupt men in government, whether they, “just like my son, cheat and steal and lie only because they are sure they are cats. And as adorable, furry, cream-loving creatures, they don’t have to abide by the same rules and laws all those sweaty two-legged creatures around them have to obey.”

These personal problems are easy enough for Keret to defuse and explain: after all, his son isn’t a cat, and Angry Birds is just a game, easily turned off, as all games are. But THE SEVEN GOOD YEARS becomes heavier, darker, as it proceeds, although this darkness invades in ways sometimes imperceptible at first, and in ways sometimes sudden. Toward the end of the memoir, in its most harrowing chapter, Keret finds himself and two of the people he cares about most in near-death situations. It’s all sort of a coincidence, and sort of not: the problems in his life have been leaning on each other, and in this chapter, one finally falls and brings the others down with it.

But Keret’s view is not pessimistic, merely realistic: he understands that nobody escapes pain. At the end of the book, Keret finds himself lying on the ground with his wife and son, playing a game of pastrami (the son lies between his parents like sandwich meat), when a bomb explodes in the distance. “It sounded like it exploded not far from our house,” Keret tells his family. His son, brave in the way all children are brave, makes his father promise that the next time a bomb falls they can play pastrami again. Keret’s wife says they can--and then reminds her son that they can also play without the bombs.

Yes, the chaos may exist outside, and it may singe the edges of our lives occasionally, but Keret understands in this remarkable book that family is the ultimate rebuke to fear.

The Seven Good Years: A Memoir Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594633263
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Books - June 16th, 2015

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