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March 14, 2014

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Israeli author: ‘For me, writing is like surfing’

THE Keret House in Warsaw, Poland, is said to be world’s narrowest house, measuring 72 centimeters at its narrowest and 122 at its widest. Its creator, Polish architect Jakub Szczesny named it after its first resident, Israeli writer Etgar Keret, internationally known for his ability to create fully functional structures within limited parameters, just like the house.

Famous for his short stories, Keret is one of the most-beloved, controversial and sought-after contemporary writers in Israel, especially by young people. He writes in the “Hebrew slang,” the spoken language that has biblical roots and also includes many invented and imported words.

This signature writing style offended and angered many people at the beginning of his writing career. They said he was abusing the language of the Bible.

Today, Keret’s stories are included in high school curriculum, though some teachers refuse to teach them.

“But this tension between the biblical traditional language and the spoken one is representative of the society,” Keret tells Shanghai Daily during a visit to the city’s international literary festival this week.

“Unfortunately, even though I have had the luck to work with the best translators in the world, this linguistic tension is still lost in translation,” he adds.

Imaginative, and sometimes absurd, Keret’s stories depicts true and surreal situations, such as a writer forced to tell a story with a gun pointing at him, a fish that talks and makes wishes come true, a pair of twin sister married to twin brothers, a wife who unzips her boyfriend to find a German inside, among many more compact, fun and aspiring fables.

Keret has also made a name in filmmaking, especially after co-directing internationally acclaimed “Jellyfish” (2007) with his wife Shira Geffen, winner of the 2007 Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Many of his short stories have been adapted, by him and others, into films as well.

“I enjoy both,” he says. “Writing is very lonely, especially after you have been writing for a long time. So when I feel I want to get outside and talk to people, I switch to films. And when it gets too much, I can go back to writing by myself again.”

His most recent collection of short stories, “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door” (2012), is available in English and has recently been translated and published in Chinese, a rare commercial publishing deal.

The Chinese edition was translated from English and “sold relatively well considering he is new to Chinese readers,” according to Zhong Zhaoming, Keret’s Chinese editor at 99 Readers Culture Co Ltd.

All around the world, novels usually sell better than short stories, which naturally makes it more difficult to publish short stories. When looking for foreign books, Chinese publishers mainly choose from America and Europe, while many previous Israeli translations were the results of cultural exchange projects.

Different opinions

“We did worry about the sales a bit in the beginning, but his stories are different from other pure literary short stories,” Zhong says. “He’s got very rich Israeli culture in the stories, but at the same time, his wild imagination and fluent writing style just make them very readable even to Chinese readers who know nothing about the country. They don’t feel the cultural gap and they can learn a lot about the Israeli culture and society through the stories.”

Keret constantly discusses the different opinions in Israel, which he says are encapsulated by his own family. His sister is very conservative and has 11 children. His brother is the opposite — he lives in a tree house in Thailand.

“And I’m the ordinary one,” he laughs. “That is like the country itself, with people holding polar ideas and those in the middle. The tension and complexity are part of the country’s state and culture.”

Another constant theme in his stories is storytelling itself. In “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door,” the first story in the new collection, a writer is forced to tell a story with two guns and a knife pointing at him. He starts the story by pondering whether he should write “something out of nothing” or “something out of something.”

Keret’s next project, working with his wife on a French TV drama, is also about storytelling, through the stories of a French property agent.

Back home in Israel, he’s a hero to young people and students, “probably because they are the ones who often felt they are not understood or accepted by the society,” he says. “I write about people on the edge of the society, so they may feel echoed by characters in my stories.”

Known as a best-selling short story writer, rare today, Keret says he had never deliberately chosen this form.

“Some people see writing as a journey from point A to point B. I couldn’t do that. I can’t plan and organize ahead to write a novel. For me, writing is like surfing. I start and then the characters carry me to wherever and whenever the story ends. It just so happens that they end as short stories,” he explains.

He recently completed a long non-fiction work, writing his own life from the birth of his son to the death of his father — he does not plan to publish it in Hebrew. The English edition is scheduled for 2015.

“It’s very private. It’s like you don’t want your neighbor to know what’s happening in the house, but it’s OK to tell a stranger who you’ll never meet again,” he says.

“In interviews, I give a lot of names, including Kafka, as my influencers, but deep down, my parents are really the biggest influences I have had,” he says.

His parents are both Holocaust survivors who grew up with stories their own parents made up for them when there were no books to be had.

They carried on the tradition to making up bedtime stories for Keret and his siblings — his mother’s stories were often filled with fantasies while father always drew from experience, including the days he hid in an Italian brothel while smuggling weapons for the Jewish resistance.


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