Etgar Keret’s new memoir The Seven Good Years opens with the birth of Keret’s son, Lev, who arrives during a terrorist attack that shutters the hospital’s maternity ward. The doctors have left for the emergency room. The two remaining nurses are on a cigarette break. Even Lev seems to understand that his birth has been postponed, and his mother’s contractions slow. Keret is left to fend off a reporter who is disappointed that he’s missed the real action. “Too bad you weren’t there,” he says of the attack. “A reaction from a writer would have been good. Someone original, someone with a little vision.”
In fact, someone original, someone with a little vision, is about to arrive. When he does, newly born Lev looks around and offers the best possible commentary on events: He starts to cry.
Like every personal essay in The Seven Good Years, “Suddenly, the Same Thing” is very short, very funny, and surprisingly profound. Together, the essays that make up Keret’s memoir tell the story of a family’s history—the arrival of the next generation and the departure of the last—in scenes that pass as quickly as a lifetime’s days.
But my favorite thing about them is their magical relationship to the truths they tell. In a recent New York Times interview, Keret said he doesn’t particularly like memoirs. “I tend to mistrust people who are telling a story they have such a great stake in,” he said. It was a strange thing for a newly minted memoirist to say, but the essays in The Seven Good Years suggest something just as strange: a memoir that might not be completely accurate is more likely to be true.
The seven good years in Keret’s title are the years between Lev’s birth and Keret’s father’s death. Keret recounts his life as a new father, globetrotting literary figure, and daily witness to the carnival of life’s absurdities. He frets over Lev’s future military service (even though Lev is only three), accepts the reliably unreliable advice of his friend Uzi, and falls in love with Warsaw, Poland. He is always traveling to literary festivals. These meditations and travelogues are interspersed with stories about Keret’s family. From the moment of his birth, Lev is wise beyond his years. He issues astute questions and observations from the back of taxis, the middle of the street, and the waiting line for the Dumbo carousel at Disneyland.
Keret remembers his father as a man who beat a lifetime of unfavorable odds. He meets Keret’s mother—and even gets her number—as he is being arrested for a minor public indecency. When, later in life, he learns there are no promising treatments for his cancer, he becomes excited. “I love making decisions when things are at rock bottom,” he says. “And the situation is such dreck now that I can only come out ahead.” Keret’s mother is equally fearless. At one point in her family’s flight from Poland, she tells her father she can’t go on. He tells her she doesn’t have a choice. “The Nazis,” he says, “want to erase our family name from the land, and you’re the only one who can keep it alive. It is your mission to get through the war and make sure that our name survives.” Keret also introduces his brother, who lives in Thailand, and his sister, who lives in the most orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, which Keret describes as just as exotic and remote.
Almost every story in The Seven Good Years is imbued with absurdity, a dash of sentiment, and a moral point. “The Way We War” shows the wicked irony in the relief that settles over a country embroiled in a what Keret calls a good, old-fashioned, patriotic war. “Flight Meditation,” a piece a modern-day Montaigne might have written, explores the way commercial airline flights invite the emergence of a separate “I.” “Strange Bedfellows” is about how lizards (and other foreign creatures) are not as frightening as they seem. Each tale is a small, perfectly formed, storytelling gem.
In fact, Keret’s stories are so perfectly composed, it’s easy to believe they aren’t completely true. Did Lev’s teacher really complain to Keret and his wife that she was powerless to resist their son’s manipulations (“Fat Cats”)? Did the telemarketer hounding Keret really insist on talking to him, even when he pretended to take her call from his own funeral (“Call and Response”)?
Here’s my theory: When Keret told the New York Times he didn’t trust writers who are too invested in their stories, he didn’t mean he didn’t trust them to report their lives accurately. He meant he didn’t trust them not to. The blend of incident and magic in The Seven Good Years suggests you can’t fully describe life without a little artistic license. The essential thing is to imagine just enough to fully report a story’s truth. How else can a writer be expected, as Keret says, “to persist in searching for an angle that would put the ugliness [of reality] in a better light and create affection and empathy for every wart and wrinkle on its scarred face”? As his wife Shira puts it, “Our life is one thing, and you always reinvent it to be something else more interesting. That’s what writers do, right?”
After all, which would you rather read: A story about a baby who was born and cried, or a story about a baby who was born and clearly saw the world?