What Etgar Keret Learned About Storytelling from His Father

Photo by Garoa

Author Etgar Keret’s new memoir, The Seven Good Years, chronicles the time between the birth of his son and the death of his father. Keret’s parents were both Holocaust survivors, and in an interview with Fresh Air, Keret said that experience shaped his father’s stories:

My father was very charismatic and a very good storyteller but he couldn’t invent anything so he would tell me stories about things that had just happened. And these stories would be amazing and there was sometimes violence in them, many extreme things, but at the same time, they were full of love for mankind and even the people who would do those extreme things, you would still understand them and like them. The protagonist in those stories, they would always be prostitutes and mafia guys and drunk people.

As a 5-year-old I asked my father, “What’s a prostitute?” He said to me, “A prostitute is somebody who makes a living by listening to other people’s problems.” I asked him, “What’s a mafia guy?” He says, “A mafia guy is like a landlord but he collects money from houses that he doesn’t own.” And I asked him “What’s a drunk person?” He said, “It’s somebody who has a physical condition that the more liquids he drinks, the happier he becomes,” and at that stage I couldn’t really decide if when I grow up I want to become a drunk prostitute or a drunk mafia guy, but options seemed very attractive.

When I became 10 or 11 I understood that something was really wrong about the stories that my father had told me and I kind of confronted him about it and my father apologetically said to me, “Listen, when I wanted to tell you stories my first instinct would be to tell you stories from my childhood, but what kind of stories would I tell you? How the Nazis caught my kid sister and tortured her to death but she would still not tell where I was hiding? Or how we spent more than 600 days in a hole in the ground being afraid that we would be discovered and killed?” …

Those stories, for me, were always the model for the function of stories and storytelling in our lives — the idea is that you kind of look reality straight in the face, it doesn’t matter how ugly it is, and you try to find humanity in it, you try to find beauty in it, you try to find hope in it. So you can’t beautify it, but at the same time, you should find these tiny things that you know that would make sometimes very violent and unhappy occasions still human and emotional.

Read the interview