Etgar Keret in Context

By Adam Rovner

In conjunction with our live Etgar Keret discussion on March 5th at the Idlewild bookstore in New York, Adam Rovner, writer, scholar and translations editor of Zeek, will be moderating an online discussion on Etgar Keret's Girl on the Fridge. Adam will be posting weekly about reading The Girl on the Fridge and we will also be featuring Adam's interview with Etgar Keret, and essays and exchanges from Todd Hasak-Lowy, Hannan Hever, Moshe Ron and our panel participants Miriam Shlesinger, one of the translators of The Girl on the Fridge, and Phillip Lopate. We hope you'll join Adam and our other guests in talking about this fantastic book, and also chip in with your favorite short short story from the collection, for a chance to win one of two signed books by Etgar Keret.—Editors

You could read some of Etgar Keret's stories in the time it takes for a match to burn down to your fingers. Like the sting of flame that singes your skin, his stories sear into your mind. They warp your perception of everyday things—glue, buses, refrigerators—that never again seem quite the same. Crazy glue affixes people to ceilings, buses self-destruct on city streets, and refrigerators serve as gilded cages of solitude in Keret's world. His fiction does what all art should do: make the familiar strange. And what a strange world he creates. His stories are mostly set in a recognizable, contemporary Israel, but one in which Zionism's DNA has undergone a slight mutation. In Keret's imagination, Mossad agents torture themselves, quanta visit Einstein on Yom Kippur, and children color paint-by-number pictures of "Nazi henchmen find[ing] Anne Frank." Some readers mistake his wit for irreverence and his postmodern sensibility for nihilism. But a careful survey of his work suggests that his playfulness is calculated not to shock, but to introduce ambiguity into a society polarized by black-and-white thinking. His stories offer not nihilism, but hyper-real satires that imply the existence of a world of values.

In the hopeful era of the early 1990s, Keret emerged as the voice of a new Israeli generation with his collections Pipelines (1992) and Missing Kissinger (1994). Stories from both these collections appear in The Girl on the Fridge. When it was first published, his work managed to seem both remarkably of the times, and subtly prescient. The impossible unfolded on the front pages of Israel's daily newspapers during these years. And with the appearance of each of Keret's volumes, it seemed as if more and more Israelis had eagerly stepped through the looking glass into his world. Or as if Keret's Wonderland had burst its borders and annexed Israel. Suddenly Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty, soldier-statesman Yitzhak Rabin shook PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat's hand, and Palestinian flags blew in Jerusalem's desert breeze. Everywhere in Tel Aviv, the country's cultural capital, people read Keret's books: soldiers on leave, sophisticates sipping espresso, and grizzled older writers who, jealous and admiring by turns, invited the young author to join their coffee-house parliaments. Keret, meanwhile, slouched and shuffled through the corridors of Israel's literary establishment wearing red sneakers, bemused by his own success.

Modern Hebrew literature tends to value grand works that explore the condition of Jews in the Promised Land, or epic novels that mythologize the Zionist project. By contrast, Keret's flash fictions threaten to devour their own tales. The cast of schizophrenic secret agents, cut-rate angels, and knockoff goddesses that populate his stories urgently point to their own unreality. Keret gets away with the lunatic world he creates by highlighting its existence as fiction. But rather than flatten into one-dimensionality, his characters instead reveal a depth amid their world of enchantment. His stories have a cumulative impact, accruing toward a psychological portrait of his society, akin perhaps to that crafted by television auteur Rod Serling in his weekly installments of The Twilight Zone, which distilled the paranoia of late 1950s and early 1960s America. Keret himself wrote for television during the run of the immensely popular sketch comedy series The Cameri Quintet in the 1990s. The show featured some of the most incisive ironies and controversial moments of black humor ever to appear on the Israeli small screen. It's no surprise, then, that Keret's literary language reveals traces of the mass media, slang, ordinary speech, and the coarse idiom of the military mixed with more sublime registers of Hebrew. Yet despite the influence of mass culture on his work, Keret's stories are never clichéd. Instead, he uses the language of the media against itself, wringing expressiveness from blunt speech, and exposing hidden truths behind the mundane.

A kabbalistic tale tells how evil burst into the world through a single malformed Hebrew letter. In Keret's everyday mysticism, enlightenment seeps into an already perverted world through the cracked edifice of banal formulas. In the story "Not Human Beings," for example, a brutal officer tells his recruits that Arabs aren't people. To prove his point: "with a quick slice, the officer cut [an Arab's] stomach in two, and rolled-up flags, flyers, candy, and phone tokens came spilling out of it. èDon't touch the candy,' the officer warned them. èIt's poisoned.'" In passages like these, Keret's work evinces a mordant sensibility shared by writers such as Terry Southern, Robert Coover, and Brad Millhauser. Readers are never sure where they stand in Keret's world, perhaps a reflection on the author's own sense of being an outsider.

Critics and reviewers have scoured world literature to trace Keret's influences, finding similarities to writers as disparate as Franz Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, and I.B. Singer. Such literary greats are invoked to stress the affinities between Keret's brand of hallucinatory prose and the fables, parables, magical realism, and humor of those to whom he is compared. Stylistically, his writing is often described as both absurdist and laconic. Yet the deadpan alienation present in Keret's work is more evocative of Beck than Beckett. His characters are often losers, stifled boy-men whose melancholy leads them to dreams of escape or a resigned dissatisfaction. Theirs is a broken world, but the only world they have. In The Girl on the Fridge, for example, a sad-sack soldier vacuum-seals himself to ward off emotional pain, a human rights attorney travels through Gaza's misery wishing he were a blues singer, and a wannabe Casanova resorts to stopping the clock to score with women who won't give him the time of day. Keret is our tour guide to the bizarro world of Zionism's "New Hebrew" superman. But the Promised Land, for Keret, is nothing so much as a bad trip.

Yet the sly way Keret's stories simultaneously outrage and evoke sympathy, bewilder and illuminate, position him as the inheritor of a profoundly religious Jewish literary heritage. The allusive quality of his fictions, which seem to gesture to allegory without indicating a clear moral, make Keret a claimant to the tradition of Reb Nachman of Breslov's Hassidic tales. Reb Nachman's mystical stories were meant to spark Jews into recognizing the divine always around them. Keret's tales, however, jolt readers into seeing a contemporary Israel bereft of the sacred. God is absent in Keret's work, or if there is a God, He is a charlatan behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz.

It's worth noting here Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon's Book of Deeds, a collection of shorts itself inspired by Reb Nachman's work. In Agnon's stories, letters remain unsent, arrivals are constantly delayed, responsibility is shirked, and despite its title, no deeds actually get done. Agnon's Book of Deeds is widely viewed as a modernist record of one man's striving with God. Keret's own stories express a slacker spirituality oddly reminiscent of the stunted fables present in the slim volume of Israel's venerated master. In The Girl on the Fridge, for example, a painter leaves a canvas incomplete, a grieving man finds himself stuck in a traffic jam, and a discharged soldier abandons a spiritual quest amid the squalor of Tel Aviv's sand dunes. Salvation in both Agnon and Keret remains deferred.

Keret's fiction ultimately suggests that our lives, and the trivialities that anchor them, are nothing more than illusions. Perhaps this explains the prevalence of magicians in his work. Magic becomes a metaphor of the author's own peculiar alchemy, which allows him to transmute the leaden world of the everyday into narrative gold. Keret himself has noted that his story, "Hat Trick," may be read as his ars poetica. Here, a struggling magician on the birthday- party circuit finally achieves success when he pulls a headless rabbit—"with his long ears and wide-open rabbit eyes…and lots and lots of blood."—from his hat. The kids, of course, love the gory act and the magician's phone rings off the hook with offers. We readers, too, wait to see what entertaining horror Keret will produce next. The narrator of "Hat Trick" says that now is no time to be a magician. But it is a good time to be a writer. And Keret's work should be required reading for anyone who ever snapped awake from a dream turned into nightmare, for anyone who feels the world spiraling out of control and wants a record of humanity's devolution. In short, we should all be reading Keret when the bombs drop—as in Israel they all too often do.

Adam Rovner is an assistant professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver. He serves as the Hebrew translations editor for Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Adam's articles, essays, and translations have appeared in a number of academic and general interest publications.

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Links to other essays, interviews and features in this series:

Keret events this March in Boston and Chicago.

Miriam Shlesinger talks about translating Keret.

Phillip Lopate discusses the roots of Keret's work.

 

Adam Rovner on Reading Keret: Front Line of the Hyper-real.

Nicolle Elizabeth reports on our Keret event at the Idlewild bookstore.

Photos from the event.

 

Adam Rovner interviews Etgar Keret

The video from the Idlewild Event

Adam Rovner talks about "An Exclusive"

The Art of Big Things: Todd Hasak-Lowy on Reading Keret

My Favorite Keret Story, from Bud Parr

 

Translating the Funhouse: Adam Rovner on Reading Keret

Moshe Ron and Hannan Hever discuss finding Etgar Keret.

Resources for further reading (and viewing) on Etgar Keret.


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