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From Israel, writer Etgar Keret talks about the role of fiction in times of war

Etgar Keret says writing both protects him from reality and can create the bridge to reality.
Lielle Sand
Etgar Keret says writing both protects him from reality and can create the bridge to reality.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Sometimes fiction can help us see the world more clearly than the news can. And since the war started, I've been thinking about the fiction writer Etgar Keret. He's a beloved Israeli author of short stories and other writings. His work can be absurd, fantastical and poetic.

I got to visit him at the apartment in a leafy neighborhood of Tel Aviv where he lives with his wife and a white rabbit named Hanzo.

"He's a protection rabbit," Keret jokingly tells me. "He's always alert. And, you know, he's like a Rottweiler."

When I interviewed him in 2019, Keret told me fiction helps him make sense of a crazy world. And now the world seems even crazier. So I asked what fiction is doing for him today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Etgar Keret: So I started writing during my compulsory army service, being one of the worst soldiers in the history of the IDF, and basically having my best friend die in my arms, you know? So I got into writing, really, out of despair, it was kind of like the last option, you know?

And I think ever since then there is something about writing that it functions like an airbag in a car, you know? COVID, a terrorist attack, my girlfriend dumped me — I run to the computer and I write something. And it's as if, like, it's both something that protects me from reality, and at the same time can create the bridge to reality, and also makes me understand myself.

So I really don't remember any time in my life that it was bad that I didn't write. But this time, it was as if there was nothing to write because, I guess, for writing you need to have a bit of a solid ground, this kind of feeling — you should know up from down, you should know what your name is — if you don't hold that, you cannot do anything.

Ari Shapiro [voiceover]: Etgar Keret told me he's been doing something that might sound strange: He and his wife drive to places where survivors of the massacre gather.

Maybe, he says, it's a reading or they do yoga. But really, it's just a place to be together. Kind of like an AA meeting, he said. And sometimes he taps little things out on his iPhone's Notes app. It's not the kind of writing he's used to, but it's what he's doing now.

Keret: And the weird thing is that I made these friends through these two weeks. And it's not "friends" — we're kind of, I don't know, we're survivors running for cover together. But I've been building this little group of people who like my stories and who seem to be sensitive and lost. And I send them stories every couple of days.

Shapiro: Will you show me?

Keret: I have them in English:

It's just things that happen. I just tried to capture them, you know?

Shapiro: I don't know what I expected when I came to talk to you, but I think I imagined some sort of omniscient fiction writer. And what I hear from you is that you are as lost in a fog searching for your way as anyone.

Keret: For sure. I'll tell you one story, OK? So, one morning I'm getting a WhatsApp from a guy I don't know. He's an officer about to go to Gaza. And he says, "I don't know you, but I need your help with something. This is the contact info of my ex-girlfriend. She dumped me. And I just want to ask you that if I die, you will contact her and say to her, I'm sorry for everything. And that I went to this war thinking about her." And I kind of say to him, "Look, I don't know you."

Shapiro: Why would he give you that message?

Keret: I said, "I don't know you. I don't know her. I don't know. Ask your family, your friends." And he says, "She's very angry with me and I'm not sure if she will listen to any of them, but you are her favorite author. So if you call her, she'll listen to you."

So, of course, immediately I call up the girl. I said to her, "Listen, I have a lot on my head. I'm not gonna go get your ex-boyfriend's name every day just to see if he died, you know? I have other things to deal with. So I'm telling you what he said, do with it what you want, you know. If you want to say something to him before he dies, go ahead." And I get a WhatsApp back, much more relaxed than my WhatsApp, and she said, "Would you like to know why I dumped in?" And I said, "Yes." And then she told me, "Maybe I shouldn't share that, you know?" But immediately I say, Oh, my God, you know, I don't like this guy so much anymore. And me and this girl, we're kind of friends now. And I send her stories, like, every couple of days.

Etgar Keret reads one of his notes, "Signs of Life"

Shapiro: In this moment, I know that people all over the country are sending clothes and food and basic supplies. What's the good of sending stories?

Keret: You know, first of all, I said to my wife, I wish I was good at other things too. You know, I'm a bad driver. I can't cook. I don't know how to do many things. But I think in war, you can be confused only in stories. If you try to be confused on Facebook, you know, they're going to tear you to pieces.

This is an atmosphere where if somebody wants to say something positive, general and naïve, everybody will attack him. If you want to say something that is negative, shallow and extreme, everybody says, "OK, this is an argument." If I say, "How about we blow up the entire region?" Then people say, "OK, we'll talk about that." But if I say, you know, "I think it's sad when I see any human being dying," then they say, "Oh my God, here he goes again."

So I'm saying at least art allows you to do that. Because it's so irrelevant and unimportant. It's almost like the attic — it's the hiding place for your emotions during war, you know, go and put them there. Go read a story. Go read a poem. Go write a poem. Because if you try to interact with people and bring your complexity, they're going to rip you to pieces.

This conversation was produced by Megan Lim and Vincent Acovino and edited by Courtney Dorning. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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