Last spring I was sent a copy of a book called Gaza Blues, a collection of short stories which came out of a collaboration between the Israeli writer Etgar Keret and the London-based Palestinian, Samir el-Youssef. They had met in Zurich a couple of years earlier, at an event that was supposed to bring writers from Israel and Palestine together for a "dialogue". Unlike what appears in a novel, this is often a loudhailer affair, usually concluding with the deafness of both parties. "I soon realised," Keret said, "that there were two types of writer there, Samir and me, and the rest."
The stories that Keret contributed, most from collections already published in Israel, where he is a bestselling writer and film-maker, were unlike anything else the country was producing. What one cherishes in real literature is imagination, and Keret is always taking the reader on some crazy trip that ends almost as soon as it's begun. Unmistakably Israeli, the stories still seemed to deal with all the important things, friendship, sadness, fear. There was a woman killed by a suicide bomb who, when autopsied, is found to be riddled with undiagnosed tumours. If she hadn't died, she would only have lived another week. A man goes to bed with a gorgeous girl and wakes up next to a fat man who proves to be an ideal drinking buddy. A gullible young man sends off for a booklet, for £9.99 plus postage, which promises to explain the mystery of life. It actually does just that, except that the knowledge creates some new problems requiring new booklets. A nebbishy kid proves a disappointment to his father, who is the head of Mossad.
In the title story of his collection The Nimrod Flip-out (Chatto & Windus, £10.99; translated by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston), people offer various explanations for why Miron freaks out. Is it a trauma from the army, some bad magic mushrooms he ate in India, a Dutch chick who broke his heart? Or is it God, who "as everyone knows is really big on dishing it out, but not on taking it and the last thing He can afford is a rebuttal, especially from a guy like Miron".
Over the next few months, Keret, el-Youssef and I appeared on platforms together, trying to talk about the writer's need to push away slogans and headlines. Last week, we were together in Israel for an event sponsored by international publishers at the Jerusalem Book Fair. The idea was to bring writers from Israel and the Arab and Muslim world together in front of an audience of editors and agents from Europe, North America and Australia. The venue was a marquee next to the border between Green Line Israel and Jordan, a no-man's land on the edge of the Jewish and Arab world. Many invitees rejected the invitation, refusing to appear on a platform with Israelis unless they had a documented record of activism against occupation. None of the Israeli writers was deemed to have passed the rigorous criteria of the Egyptian Writers Union, which has a policy of anti-normalisation with Israel. After weeks of negotiations, most (though not all) Palestinian writers declined the offer to attend an event for which they needed a special travel permit issued by the Israeli government.
A couple of days later, in the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem, Keret and I talked about the event and his writing. The Nimrod Flip-out is about three friends, one of whom is put in a mental asylum. The other two feel doomed to spend the rest of their lives taking care of him, or else they will suffer. "My best friend killed himself when I was in the army when I was 19," Keret says, "and I had the strong feeling that, because we had such a strong connection, to stay his friend I had to stay 19. The moment we grow up, we leave him behind. Of all the stories I have written, this is the most autobiographical."
By not directing his work at the political conflict itself, he enters the inner world of sadness and paranoia that afflicts Israelis. "We could be less afraid, more empathetic," he says. "In a lot of my stories, there is a strong optimism that transcends the life we're living, that our emotional scope is larger than what we're experiencing. My stories are a commercial for life. 'Life: try it sometime'."
When I read Keret's stories I was struck by the individuality of the voice, yet he seemed to speak for all the young Israelis I would hear and see on the streets of Tel Aviv: soldiers, drug dealers, clubbers, macho kids, wimps and studs. "I don't feel a representative of my generation," he says. "I feel an example of it. There could be a settler my age, or an ultra-Orthodox my age or an Arab - all these groups are my readers. I have had fan letters from both settlers and Arabs. The anxiety, the feeling of an uncertain future, the struggle to grasp what your identity is, is common to all of us."
When his stories were translated into Arabic, they sold out in Ramallah. He can only conclude that there is a hunger among young Palestinians to know the boys of their own age who only appear on the streets of their cities with faces hidden behind helmets, "or if not, then maybe Hamas confiscated them".
Why are Keret's stories so short? "I don't plan them to be short," he says. "Many times when I start a story I think I'm working on a novel which ends two pages later. I never know what's going to happen, I'm very emotionally connected to what I write and very anxious about what's going to happen. So I'm in a hurry to find out."
At the event on the bridge, there had been a discussion about whether the writer could or should attempt to change the world. One of the few Palestinian writers to attend, Ahmad Harb, had told an anecdote about the Six Day War when, as a teenager, he had believed the sermons of the mullah in his mosque near Nablus, who told local people that the Israeli planes were falling from the sky like flies.
Harb saw the Jordanian forces retreating, then a convoy of tanks which he believed were Arab forces coming to save them. When the tanks turned out to be Israeli, he ran to the cave where he was born and hid there for three months. The place of the imagination, the inner life, the closeness to one's inner being as a refuge from rhetoric and propaganda: that was the theme that triumphantly emerged from the bridge event.
When el-Youssef suggested the idea of a collaboration, Keret agreed: "During the greatest despair in my life, at the height of the second intifada, Samir kept saying we must do something as both of us can be very cynical about signing petitions, and that the only thing we could do was to write stories. I was very cynical, and still am, about the ability of the book to affect anything. We can't change reality; that's why we became writers." For the event on the bridge, "People went there to play the role they're supposed to play," he says. "Fighter for peace on one side and victim on the other - and you go out of those roles feeling dehumanised. But when they told their stories they were unclear and ambiguous, and then people listened to each other."
Keret recalled an event in Paris with the Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, each scanning the audience, wondering if the woman with the sharp chin was a right-wing Jew who would denounce Kashua as a terrorist, or a left-wing supporter of Palestine who would denounce Keret (as had already happened in Italy) as a baby-killer. When she raised her hand, it was to say that she had listened to them both for an hour and couldn't work out who was the Jewish Israeli and who the Palestinian Israeli.
Keret's sister is an ultra-Orthodox who has lived on a settlement. His brother is an activist against the separation barrier being constructed across Palestinian towns, who also leads a political party that campaigns to legalise marijuana. Keret describes life in Israel and Palestine as like concentrated juice that you have to mix with your imagination.
"It's like a laboratory of human actions, there's no sewer system, the sewage goes into the street, whatever you get is full volume and the neighbours in the world ask us to lower the volume." But the neighbours, it often seems to me, are making too much noise of their own, drowning out the voices of the writers.
Linda Grant's books include the Orange Prize-winning 'When I Lived in Modern Times'. She will be talking with Etgar Keret and Samir el-Youssef at a Jewish Book Week event in London on 8 March (tickets: 0870 060 1798 or www.jewishbookweek.com)
Biography: Etgar Keret
Etgar Keret was born in Israel in 1967, the child of Holocaust survivors. Over the last 12 years, he has published four bestselling short-story collections, starting with Pipelines in 1992, four graphic novels and a screenplay. He has written a column for a Jerusalem weekly and a comic strip in a Tel Aviv paper. His film Malka Red-Heart won Israel's leading cinema award. Gaza Blues, a collaboration with the Palestinian writer Samir el-Youssef, appeared last year from David Paul. Chatto & Windus has now published Keret's The Nimrod Flip-Out, and Toby Press another volume of his stories, The Bus Driver who wanted to be God. Etgar Keret also teaches film in Tel Aviv University.Reuse content