Etgar Keret: Stories We Tell
STORIES WE TELL
6 June 2016
You can talk about my personal history as a history of continuous war. I think that this is the privilege of making stories: when you make up stories you decide which details are important and which are the ones that connect the different stops in your life. Technically speaking, I was born in the '67 war, I went to elementary school on the '73 war, I went to high school on the Lebanon war and my life continues between one war to another, but I think that the freedom we have as human beings is to choose for us an alternative biography.
Talking about a memory of war, I can say that one of my strongest childhood memories is the memory of the Yom Kippur war in '73. It was a war that started on the Day of Atonement and Israel was surprised by it. All the soldiers were called to the front in a very abrupt way and I remember a military car just under our building waiting for my father. My father was in the kitchen taking a piece of paper saying to my mother, while I am looking from the other room, "If I die in this war, please sell this apartment. You're supposed to get for it 40,000 liras, (which was the currency then). You have to pay this guy 5,000 lira, this guy 4,000 lira, this guy 6,000 lira, and you'll have 8,000 liras for yourself." And my mother says to my father, "And where will I live with the children?" And my father looks at her and he says, "You're a smart woman, you'll manage!" goes down to the car, waves to her and drives away. This is one of my strongest memories as a child: this idea that life is very fluid and transparent and, you know, people are alive one second and maybe when they get into a car they will never come back. But, again, the biography of war was not the biography I chose for myself.
They told me not to speak too long and, since it is the first time that I speak in a chapel, it is easy for me. When you look around and see Jesus on the cross you get a reminder what happens to a Jew that talks too much Iwanted to talk today about the personal importance that I see in oral storytelling. This is not because I think that oral storytelling is in any way more important than written literature, but it is just an attempt to make some kind of a confession, maybe it is appropriate being in a chapel. For all my life as a writer when I was asked about my influences I always named writers like Kafka or Bashevis Singer. And when I did that I felt that I was doing what I was expected to do, but at the same time I felt that I wasn't completely telling the truth , because I think that the stories that had formed my identity, not only as a writer but as a human being, had begun much earlier than that. Before I gave this lecture I was asked to give it in writing, because it's part of a series of talks that also appears in booklets., and I kept refusing, as difficult as it was to refuse Beatrice, both loving her and also fearingher a little. For me the idea of writing down a lecture about the importance of oral storytelling is an oxymoron. It's like making pornographic film about the importance of keeping your virginity. The two just doesn't mix that well together, so I took this kind of dare of talking about oral storytelling in an oral way.
My parents were both Holocaust survivors and both of them did not have a normal childhood. My mother lost her entire family in the Warsaw ghetto, seeing her mother and her brother killed in front of her eyes. My father survived the war with his parents by hiding for two years in a hole they dug in the ground. when they had a family - which was basically the greatest dream and fantasy through the war, something that had seemed in their childhood unattainable- both to survive and to keep themselves physically and psychologically intact enough to find another person whom they'd want to share their life with and have children - and when they fulfilled that, they just wanted to be the best parents possible. my mother had told me in a very young age that the way that you act as a parent usually has to do with your childhood. You usually look back to your childhood and if you had a happy one, then you imitate and copy what your parents had done, and if you had a lousy and miserable one, then you look at your childhood and try to do the opposite. But in my case my mother said, "I have no point of reference, my parents had died too early for me to know what you're supposed to do as a parent." she told me as a child, "I will experiment with you and if I do something that seems wrong, please tell me, and I'll try to do something else." I never told her to do something else, because the system that she offered, even now when I grew up and I realised it's not a normal system, seemed to make perfect sense for me. For example, in our house there was a very simple rule, that if it rained we didn't go to school, because my mother said, "They don't teach you anything important enough to get wet for." And she had countless of other rules and laws thatthat made sense, I think, very much for a child who had grown up in a world that he had made up in his mind.
One of the most powerful memories that my mother had kept from her parents was the bedtime stories they would tell her. Both my parents were very literate: they read in six different languages and our house was full of books, but the memories of my mother were of the oral stories that her mother and father would tell her in the ghetto, because in the ghetto they had no access to children book. So every evening they had to make her a new story and during the day they would collect ideas, and thoughts, and images that in the evening would amount to that new story, the story of the day, which was a true and authentic display of love from their side. And when she raised her family she wanted to do the same. She of course knew that she could go to the nearest book store and buy Alice in Wonderland or Winnie-the-Pooh or any other beautiful classic, but for her to read to us a story from the book made as much sense as ordering pizza for dinner. It's something that lazy parents do. "A lazy parent pays money," as she would say in a kind of insulting way, "pays money for somebody else's story because he is too lazy to make a special story for his child." And the ideas that those stories were oral and existed only once, only one time, and then disappeared into the world like a sculpture made of ice, made those stories very special both for her and for me. My mother had this wonderful talent and imagination, it was very easy for her to make stories, stories that always connected to what happened that day, with some specific detail,. like a photo you take for the today's paper as a proof when you kidnap somebody- something that would show me that she had made up the story right that moment, on that day that she didn't take an old, already used, story and froze it in the refrigerator just to defrost it for me, but that it was a totally fresh one.
I really loved my mother's stories, but sometimes she would have to work until very late hours, sometimes she wouldn't feel that well, and my father would have to tell me bedtime stories. And because there were no children books in the house, then he would have to deal with the same system, only my father didn't know how to make up stories. And so, when it was my father's turn to tell me stories, he would always tell me stories that basically were things that had happened to him in his life. So it was my first introduction to non-fiction.the stories that mother told me had always taught me something about the power of imagination: how the world we live in was unlimited. You could always imagine something new, take that space that you live in and make it wider: how all the worlds that exists around us weretransparent and you can just go and walk through them, the stories that my father told me, on the other hand, taught me something else. theywere always about people who did something that seemed wrong to me as a child, but the entire purpose of the story was not to justify their actions, but to understand them and to empathise with them. So, in all his stories people came out human, whatever they did. And in some way I loved those stories even more, maybe also because they were more rare, and also because I would always see my father sweating when he would tell them., while my mother flourished in this situation, he was totally intimidated by it.
The stories that my father had told me had one thing in common: they always took place in a whorehouse and the protagonists were always prostitutes, mafia people and drunk people. as a five-year-old child, when I would ask my father "What's a prostitute?" he told me, "Well, a prostitute is somebody who gets paid to listen to other people's problems." And when I'd asked him "And what are mafia people?" he said, "Oh, mafia people, they are people who collect rent from everyone, even from people whose buildings they don't own." And when I asked him what a drunk is, he said, "Ah, those people with this physical condition that the more liquid they drink, the happier they become." at the age of five I already had a professional dilemma, I didn't know if, when I grew up, I want to be a drunk male prostitute or a drunk mafia guy-, in my father's stories both were like very good professional choices. When I reached about the age of ten, I realised that what my father told me was not only not true, but was also inappropriate for a child. I took him for a very serious talk and I told him, "telling me those stories was wrong I want you to explain why you did that." my father said, "Look, when I was lying next to you in bed my first instinct would be to tell you a story of my childhood, but then I thought, 'Which story should I choose? Should I tell you the story of how the Nazis caught my sister and torturing her to death while she refused to tell them where I'm hiding? Should I tell you the story of how when we were taken out of the hole in ground my muscles were so contracted that I couldn't move?' These didn't seem like good stories for a five-year-old, I wanted to tell you story of hope and happiness. And so I fast-forwarded my life a little bit and reached the part where after the war I tried to come to Israel, but this story too was a sad story. Because when I came to Israel I was caught by the British and sent back to Europe, to Cyprus, being an illegal immigrant. And it was right after that that I joined the Irgun, which was an underground movement that had fought the British occupation, and because I was not allowed to come to Israel, the only way I could contribute was by buying firearms to fight the British. And they positioned me in Italy, in Reggio Calabria, where I was supposed to buy firearms from the Cosa Nostra, weapons which the Irgun would try to smuggle to Israel. Since I had no money to pay rent, I would sleep in public parks, but the Cosa Nostra people told me it's not appropriate, for us to do business with people sleeping on benchs in public parks.' And they offered me to live in a whorehouse that they owned instead. They said, 'You don't have to pay the rent, just step outside if a client needs your room and return later'. this is where I spent eight months of my life", my father said, "These wereeight monthswhen I was reintroduced to being a human being, because it was the first time in my life where I didn't have to hide the fact that I was a Jew; it was the first time in my life where I would sleep a wholenight without waking up in fear in the middle of it; it was the first time that I was able to engage in seeking humanity everywhere around me." And he added, "It's true, the people around me were not perfect, but compared to the Nazis they were really nice."
I think thatthis kind of perspective, of telling a story in an attempt to humanise what's around you, coming from this black hole of the Holocaust, taught methe role of storytelling: that it wasn't about telling a fairytale, taking the reality and beautify it, cheating a little bit, so it would look nicer; the idea of storytelling is to take life as ugly as they are, but still find something humane in it, that would make our existence justifiable. I remember that in one of the stories that my father told me, there was a woman. And this woman, I was just a child, but I still remember how he described her eyes for about fifteen minutes/ She had beautiful blue eyes, so beautiful that every person who saw it had the urge to take off all his clothes and jump into the ocean of her eyes. And one day in the street I met her with my father. I think she was an elderly woman at the time, and the first thing I noticed is that she was a hunchback. After she had left I said to my father, "When you told me her story you talked about her eyes so long, but you never told me that she was a hunchback. Why did you say that this woman is beautiful? She was not beautiful at all!" And he said, "Maybe she wasn't very beautiful, but did you see what eyes she had?" I think that this is what storytelling many times can do. Especially Jewish storytelling, chassidic storytelling, It's all about finding some kind of comfort, of compensation in the story that will light life in a favourable way.
After those stories that my father told me as a child, I of course became an avid reader and left those oral stories behind me, but those stories have returned to me like a good friend when I needed them the most. In Israel when you are 18 you have to serve in compulsory army service for three years. it was probably the most difficult time in my life because I was a very bad soldier. I can say for my defence that I come from a family of bad soldiers: my great-grand father was a horrible soldier in the tsar army, my father himself was a bad soldier, my brother was the only soldier in the history of Israel that was put on trial and sent to jail for practising paganism, and I continued this tradition of being a horrible soldier. Luckily, my best friend who joined the army before me got a good position in the computer unit in which he had already served. He convinced his commander that I was a computer genius, which was totally untrue, and I was transferred there. we would have very long shifts, in which my friend had taught me what I was supposed to do so I won'tbe exposed asthe charlatan I truely was , a guy who doesn't even know how to work that army computer. During my army service my best friend became more and more depressed until at one point I feared for his life. I took him to the military base psychiatrist, who after checking him said that he was perfectly fine, and when we went back to our unit, (it was a very tiny room, five floors underground, like a shelter). He had to stay for a shift and I told him, "You know what, I'll stay with you because I feel that you are depressed." at a certain point he asked me to bring something from another room and when I returned I found that he had shot himself in the head and he was dying, and I called for help. He was taken to hospital but they were unable to save him. And immediately after this was done, the military did what the military does in such situations and they sent me for psychiatric evaluation. When I was able to convince them that I was sane, they were so happy that they sent me to replace my friend who had just killed himself, during his shift, in the same room where I found him shot, with the bullet that he shot into his head stuck in the wooden cabinet, and the floor was badly washed so when you would step on it you could feel the blood sticking to the sole of your shoes. I had to spend 24 hours alone in this tiny room.
When I did that, I really felt that I would have to fight for my survival, that I had to find in myself some kind of an argument of why, although I had a weapon with me, even though my life looked horrible at that time, why I should keep on living. And this had sent me back to the stories that my father had told me. And I found myself sitting down and telling myself a story and because oral stories, you know, like those sculptures made in ice, they melt immediately, I found myself telling myself these stories again and again and again. And at some point I sat down by a computer that I had in that room and I wrote down this story and printed it. And I still had many hours to wait for the soldier who would come to relieve me from my shift. The second he came I jumped on him and I said, "I wrote this story. Would you be willing to read it?" And he said, "No, fuck off!" So, I took that printed page and left the army base. we would always change shift around 6am, which is a very bad time, as all writers know, to find readers At 6am, if you meet somebody in the street and ask him, "Do you want to read a story?", he's so angry to be awake at 6am that he won't be in the right state of mind to be your first reader. So, I immediately took a bus and drove to my pagan brother's apartment building, and I buzzed the intercom and I said, "Would you be willing to let me come up? I wrote a story and I really really want you to read it." And my brother said, "Look, its 6am. You woke up my girlfriend. She is really really angry. How about if I come down and I read the story in the street?" And I said, "Sure!" And he came down with his dog took the page from my hand and immediately started walking. But the dog who had just come down had different plans, you know, being happy that he was taken down so early, he wanted to relieve his doggy urges. So there was a little struggle, which my brother was unaware of, and a few seconds later I see my brother walking down the street with the printed page in his hand reading the story, while dragging the poor little dog behind him. The dog kind of fell on its side and I had this urge to tell my brother, "Please, stop, the dog!" But I was also too selfish, because I saw that he was reading the story and I didn't want to bother him. So, I kept silent, and may the dogs of this world forgive me. luckily for the dog my stories are very short, so a couple of blocks later my brother stopped, the dog regained his balance and did what he initially wanted to do. And my brother came and hugged me and said "I never realised... I always loved you, but I never realised that you can write something so beautiful." And I looked at his eyes and they were moist, you know, he was almost crying, and he said "Do you have another copy of it?" And I said, "Sure!" So he bent down and picked the dog shit with the printed page and he threw it down in a garbage bin.
There was something in this moment that had made me realize that I want to become a writer. What my brother did brought me back to those childhood stories that my parents had told me, he showed me that a book was not an end, it was only a means. the book was very much like a pipe, when I wrote the story I spilt something from my heart and my mind, in a way,into my brother's heart and mind. And the moment that this was done he did not need the page any longer: the story was in him, very much like how my parents stories had stayed with me so many years later. And I never stopped writing after this moment. Then, becoming a parent, the one thing I promise myself that I'd do was that I'll always tell my child a bedtime story unluckily for myself I married the daughter Israel's most famous children book writer, so there was a kind of a war in our house., she used to say "I had such a wonderful childhood with my father reading me from his books!" and I said, "I had a wonderful childhood with my parents making up a story each day!" So we decided to let our son decide. So every night he could choose between a story from a book and a story from the head. We saw very quickly that when our son was relaxed, he would always choose a story from a book, but when he was troubled, he would want a story from the head. As if there was something in those storytelling that had served some form of a therapy.
I remember that one day, before telling him a bedtime story from the he said, "Father, I want to ask you something very very important, How long can a man live?" And I said, "Well, you know, if you do sports and you don't smoke, you can live as long as 120 years." And my son got up in his bed and started shouting, "It's not fair! It's not enough!" I looked at him and said"Relax, stop shouting". And he said, "I will not, because it's not fair! It's not enough! We should live much longer! 120 years is so little, there are so many things to do in life!" I tried to calm him down but deep inside I felt he was right, which puts me in a very bad position, you know. I could tell him, "No, 120 years is too much, I think after 35 you just keep repeating yourself". Then maybe I could calm him down., but the truth is at some stage Iwanted to join him, jumping on the bed with himshouting together, "This is not enough!" But I didn't because if my wife would get into the room I would have been in trouble. So, I did what I always do (according to my wife): I started bullshitting I told him "You know that according to Jewish tradition and Indian tradition when you die it's not the end. You know, you get reincarnated and you come back to this world and you live another life." And in some strange way it relaxed my son, and when he got a little better, he said, "You know what? When I die and come back to this world, I want to be reincarnated as a cat." So I told him, "Well, you know, actually according both to the Jewish tradition and the Indian tradition it's better to be reincarnated as a human being." And he said, "Why's that?" And I said, "Because, you know, when your soul moves from one life to another, then basically you take in your next life many choices and if you take the right choices, then your soul improves and become better." And he looked at me and he said, "Many choices? I guess it's why I want to come back as a cat."
And that night I told my son a story about a boy who gets turned into a cat. And when I finished the story, my son said "Father, would you do me a favour?" And I said, "Yes, of course." He said, "Well, after I fall asleep would you mind going down to the computer and write this story down, so we can publish it later as a book?" And I said, "Yes, but why?"" And he looked at me and said, "What do you mean why should you do that? That's how we make our living, no?" And as my son fell asleep, like a very good soldier I went to the computer, I wrote the story down and I sent it to my publisher and it became a children book. And when I saw that children book, I thought about this long and full circle I went through in my life, from those oral stories that my parents had told me as a child to this printed book that I was sent to write by my own son.