Keret's Happy Campers: Etgar Keret and the Fate of Israeli Culture in the World Today

Monday, November 30, 2015

Jewish Studies & Comparative Literature graduate student Shoshana Olidort attended the two-day conference at the University of Chicago from October 14-16, 2015. Co-sponsored by the Heksherim Institute for Israeli Literature and Culture at Ben Gurion University in the Negev and the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago, the conference is named after one of Etgar Keret’s most famous books (translated as “Kneller’s Happy Campers”), this gathering is the first international conference devoted to the work of this important Israeli novelist, filmmaker and essayist. 

My presentation drew a comparison between Etgar Keret’s “Lie Land,” and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.” The former is a story about a world of lies brought to life, the latter a tale of a village fool who, after a lifetime of having heard so “many lies and falsehoods,” concludes that “the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn’t happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence, if not next year.”

While Singer’s work is largely concerned with abstract questions of truth and falsehood, with the ways in which lies often give us access to what the author called “eternal truths,” it seems to me that in Keret’s story Gimpel’s wisdom comes at last to full fruition in a world that is built entirely out of flat-out lies. The lies that populate Lie Land are pragmatic rather than esoteric; they point—or seem to point--not to some ineffable truth but to the utterly mundane: banal excuses designed to avoid uncomfortable truths: the waning of love, a fear of commitment, the desire to be somewhere else, or with someone else, or to be someone other than oneself.

I am interested, as well, in the different conclusions reached by Keret’s Robbie, and Bashevis’s Gimpel, about the nature of falsehood. For Robbie, the lesson, like the lies themselves is largely a pragmatic one. He recognizes their potency and determines that what he must do is not disavow lying but rather opt for a different kind of lie, that he must create lies that are “happy” and “full of light, flowers, and sunshine,” lies that smile. As for Gimpel, he asserts that while ours is “entirely an imaginary world, “ it is “only once removed from the true world.” While these stories may seem to have little in common, I’d like to suggest that their perspectives on truth and falsehood are, in fact, fundamentally aligned. Nowhere is this more clear than in their respective conclusions, both of which assert, albeit in very different ways, that the line between lies and truth, between what is improbable and what is actually possible may itself be the greatest deception of all.