In "Creative Writing," a tale from Etgar Keret's last collection of short stories titled "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door," a teacher has some blunt advice for her students: "Write whatever comes into your head," she said. "Don't think, just write." Nonplused and then emboldened by this artistic license, one student proceeds to write about a fish that is turned into a man by a wicked witch.
It is tempting to imagine that this is how Keret crafts his deliciously zany, free-flowing stories. Each feels like the aftereffect of a spontaneous burst of inventiveness, rather than the end result of long, deliberate planning. The same can be said of the easy prose of "The Seven Good Years," Keret's first foray into nonfiction. The book carries the subtitle "a memoir," although in actual fact it resembles a colorful assortment of brief episodes, anecdotes, ruminations and opinions.
Keret's opening section, "Year One," covers subjects as diverse as the birth of his son Lev ("a midget with a cable hanging from his belly button") and Keret's inability to hang up on telemarketers. From here, he guides us through the rest of his "seven good years." We hear about his daily life in Tel Aviv, the joys and trials of parenthood and the ups and downs of international book tours.
Keret's trademark wit underscores many an incident or reflection. When Lev is 2, Keret wonders if he has sired a possible psychopath. When Lev is 4, his father mulls over potential jobs for him: "His bad temper qualified him to be a taxi driver; his phenomenal ability to make excuses indicated that he might do well in the legal profession."
Sometimes that drollness takes the form of self-deprecation (Keret attempting yoga with pregnant women and Pilates with injured ballet dancers), other times it stems from acerbic digs (a grim day out at Disneyland Paris full of "sad employees in happy uniforms").
Keret's humor turns pitch-black when he cites Iran's threat to wipe Israel off the map as his reason for shirking household chores.
But death isn't always a source of amusement. Keret tempers the frivolity by reminding us every now and then of fighting in Gaza, strikes against Lebanon and terrorist attacks in the Israeli capital. When Keret's father is diagnosed with cancer, those tinges of gloom spread into a cold, dark shadow. In these more sober sections Keret remains as candid as ever, to the extent that some of his accounts start to feel like heart-on-sleeve revelations, even confessions.
Occasionally what Keret tells us borders on the whimsical — an altercation with a taxi driver, the decision to grow a mustache — especially when it follows something as alarming as an anti-Semitic experience or as absurd as 3-year-old Lev's impending military service. But these are rare lapses on what is otherwise a brilliant and bizarre trip through the years with one of the most original writers at work today.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.