‘The Seven Good Years: A Memoir’ reviewed by Dr Vered Weiss

‘The Seven Good Years: A Memoir’ by Etgar Keret (Granta Books, 2015).

9781783780464The Seven Good Years: A Memoir by Etgar Keret is a journal of some of the most intimate moments in a person’s life. A diary of the seven years between the birth of Etgar Keret’s son and the death of his father,[1] the book also spans a metaphorical chronicle of Israeli society. The Seven Good Years is divided into seven sections, one for each year, from ‘Year One’ to ‘Year Seven’, with each ‘year’ subdivided unevenly into between four to seven short stories. Keret’s work has always lingered upon and tampered with the blurry lines between his personal identity and his public persona.[2] Yet The Seven Good Years has taken this further, completely undermining the public/private dichotomy.

The book has not been published in Israel, and is only available in languages other than Hebrew, because, as Keret explained in an interview for Haaretz, ‘something about the logic of this book works well for non-Israeli audiences [and] there are certain things that are easier said to a stranger on a train […] when you write about your kid you don’t want his teacher to read it’ (Sela 2014). The manner in which the connection between the private and the public spheres is explored in this book reveals how the most personal moments are always-already influenced and impacted by collective events, history, and politics.

One of the main themes in the book is the prevalence of medical concerns in our lives, and particularly trauma in the Israeli context. The recurrence of trauma and symptoms relating to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are striking. It seems the body of the nation suffers from various types and levels of trauma and PTSD. Whether as first-, second-, or third-generation Shoah survivors (p. 38, pp. 159–163), or as active/passive participants in the decades-long Palestinian Israeli conflict (pp. 4–5), or as suffering from a medical condition or accident (p. 5, p. 138), or indeed, all of the above, almost everyone in the book experiences some form of trauma. The private trauma (e. g. birth, accident) and the collective trauma (e.g. war, Shoah) are inextricably intertwined.

The first story, for instance, ‘Suddenly the Same Thing,’ which is a clear and direct allusion to Keret’s previous book Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (2012), starts with the concurrence of a terrorist attack and the birth of Keret’s son. Both events are traumatic, in a sense, as the terrorist attack will result in injuries, PTSD, and deaths, both personal and collective trauma; and the dangers of giving birth – though much diminished in countries such as Israel, which provide advanced medical care – are likewise physical and psychological traumas. As a particularly crass stranger notes to Keret at the hospital, birth is a traumatic event, or as the stranger phrases it: ‘What’s natural about a midget with a cable hanging from his belly button popping out of your wife’s vagina?’ (p. 5). As the medical staff rushes to attend to wounded from the attack, Keret’s wife’s contractions subside, and he contemplates that ‘[p]robably even the baby feels this whole getting-born thing isn’t that urgent anymore’ (p. 3). This blend of life and death, arguably the two greatest traumatic events in the course of one’s life, is the kernel of the book. This, moreover, is the observation Keret offers not only of his private life, but also regarding the tense life of the social body in conflict-ridden regions.

Recently, at a conference dedicated to Keret’s work, I asked him about the prevalence of medical issues, trauma, and life and death in the book.[3] He acknowledged this, noting that, indeed, the framework of the book opens up to this reading, but added that each one finds his or her personal reading. Yet in the book he explicitly suggests the pervasiveness of trauma is a regional predicament: ‘In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth’ (p. 12). Thus, ironically, death highlights the importance of life.

Within the medical humanities discourses, this book offers a unique porthole into one of the most complex war-stricken areas of the past hundred years, shedding light on the impact of conflict upon processes of identities’ (re)construction. In The Seven Good Years, as in his previous work, Keret succeeds in depicting Israeli complex reality in an agile and endearing manner,[4] which leads to some chuckles and a profound contemplation regarding Israeli society, as well as regional and wider contemporary levels of anxiety.

Reviewed by Vered Weiss, who holds a BA in Comparative and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, an MA in Comparative and World Literature from San Francisco State University, and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Kent, Canterbury (UK). Her doctoral research examines the employment of spatial metaphors in relation to (re)constructions of individual and collective identities in nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century English and Hebrew literature. Specifically, she considers the manner in which the location of the monstrous Other is indicative of the relationship of the respective ‘imagined community’ and sovereignty. Her publications include ‘A Spatial Identity Crisis: Exploring Tensions between Space and Identities in Nir Baram’s Novels,’ Shofar Vol. 33 No .4 (2015) ‘Hebrew Literature Now: Special Issue on Contemporary Israeli Literature,’ ed. Rachel S. Harris; ‘Generic Hybridity, or Mediating Modes of Writing: Agnon’s Magical Realistic and Gothic National Narration.’ Symbolism: An International Annual of Critical Aesthetics 12/13 (2013): 69-91, eds. Rüdiger Ahrens and Klaus Stierstorfer. Special issue ‘Jewish Magic Realism,’ ed. Axel Stähler. Currently, Vered is a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois.

Correspondence to Dr Vered Weiss.

Notes:

[1] The phrase ‘the seven good years’ is an allusion to the narrative of Miketz, in Genesis 41:1–44:17, which is the parashah that tells of Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams of seven years of good harvest followed by seven years of famine.

[2] In his penultimate book Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, for example, one of the stories depicts a character called Keret, who is held hostage and required to write a story under threat.

[3] ‘Keret’s Happy Campers: Etgar Keret and the Fate of Israeli Culture in the World Today,’ University of Chicago Center for Jewish Studies & Ben Gurion University of the Negev Heksherim Research Institute for Jewish and Israeli Literature & Culture, 14-15 October 2015.

[4] Keret has been read as part of Israeli cultural production that explores and expresses the ‘disintegration of the meaningful experience [and] goes against ‘myth shattering’ or ‘deconstruction’ as remedy’ (Taub 1997: 10–11). See also Taub, A Dispirited Rebellion, pp. 47–54, for an analysis of Keret’s narrative voice, and the tensions between his disillusioned perspective and modernist traditions.

Works cited:

Keret, Etgar. 2012. Suddenly, A Knock on the Door. Trans. Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sela, Maya. 2014. ‘Why Etgar Keret Stays Here After All’. Haaretz Supplement, 24 July. http://www.haaretz.co.il/gallery/literature/.premium-1.2384317 (accessed 30 October 2015).

Taub, Gadi. 1997. A Dispirited Rebellion: Essays on Contemporary Israeli Culture. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad.

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