When I saw Etgar Keret at the PEN World Voices Festival last year I was disappointed because he chose to read “Hat Trick,” a story that is as unsettling in its implications as it is gruesome. The reason for my dismay, besides the squirminess that story makes me feel, was that the brutality in “Hat Trick” might obscure an important quality in Keret’s work, even while underpinning it. The banality of everyday violence that Keret captures speaks directly to the heart of the world we live in, but so much of what’s great about his work is what happens in between the little acts of brutatily that populate these stories.
The palpable violence in Keret’s home of Israel is counterpoint to something more ghostlike here in the United States. But what our societies share is the potential for violence, or something more like the idea that our world, post-9/11, has the capability of stopping to be like it was yesterday, abruptly, randomly, yet at the same time recognizing that today was just like yesterday and tomorrow would probably be just like today and the day after and the day after, ad nauseam. Which is harder to take?
That’s why, when Miriam Shlesinger expressed her surprise that all the idioms in Keret’s work didn’t matter much to his U.S. readers, I felt justified in thinking that Keret is a man of his time, like, perhaps, Kafka was of his.
Keret can pull off lines like ”’Never in my life have I seen such a beautiful uterus.’” A sentence, in context of the story it’s in, as funny as it is improbable, despite the fact that we’re talking about a boy’s mother’s cancer. He can hang girls on the ceiling or have soldiers spend days in Saran Wrap without losing credibility, but his brand of absurdity works even better when it’s mundane:
“One day. Shriki was sitting in his living room eating olives filled with pimentos. He didn’t find the filled olives very fulfilling. He liked the olives themselves much more than the pimento filling, but on the other hand, he preferred the pimento to the original hard, bitter pit. And that’s how it came to him – the first in a series of ideas that would change his life and ours – olive-filled olives, what could be simpler?”
His minute look into quotidian details along with those irreconcilable contrasts – that seem perfectly natural and perfectly unselfconscious when you’re reading them – make Keret unique among writers of his generation in skill and perspective. That’s why my favorite Etgar Keret story is one that is least characteristic of Keret the magician but captures well his perspicacity: “The Surprise Egg” in The Nimrod Flipout.
“The Surprise Egg” revolves around a woman killed in a terrorist attack who is found, through her autopsy, to be riddled with previously undiagnosed tumors that would have killed her within a week. The irony is obvious and reflected in the pathologist’s decision not to tell the dead woman’s husband. But the heart of the story is in the details, the way the husband identifies his wife by her toe, for instance.
Where Keret excels is in questioning – the sorts of things easy to miss or even dismiss with such short stories: How well did this man know his wife? He knew her well enough to identify her body at the morgue by one toe, but could he have been so caught up in day-to-day life that he never recognized that she had very advanced cancer and would have died in a few days? Perhaps the terrorist attack saved him from his own ignorance. The true irony, then, is the husband’s ignorance versus that of the politicians who try to console him with their empty rhetoric.
Of course that’s one reading and I think others might bring other meaning to it. Not bad for a few pages.
Links to other posts in this series:
- Adam Rovner puts Etgar Keret in context.
- 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.
- Nicolle Elizabeth writes “My Nimrod Flipout”
- Photos from the event.
- Adam Rovner interviews Etgar Keret
- The video from the Idlewild Event
- Adam Rovner talks about “An Exclusive”
- Todd Hasak Lowy writes <a href=”http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?post=HasakLowyKeret” _cke_saved_href=”http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?post=HasakLowyKeret” title=”” saying=”” big=”” things:=”” the=”” art=”” of=”” etgar=”” keret”=””>”Saying Big Things: The Art of Etgar Keret” </a></li> <p></p> <p> </p><li><a href=”http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=RovnerKeretFunhouse” _cke_saved_href=”http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=RovnerKeretFunhouse”>Translating the Funhouse</a>: Adam Rovner on Reading Keret</li> <p></p> <p> </p><li><a href=”http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=RonHeverKeretDiscussion” _cke_saved_href=”http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=RonHeverKeretDiscussion”>Moshe Ron and Hannan Hever</a> discuss finding Etgar Keret.</li> <p></p> <p> </p><li><a href=”http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=KeretResources” _cke_saved_href=”http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=KeretResources”>Resources</a> for further reading (and viewing) on Etgar Keret.</li> <p></p> <p> </p></ul> <p></p>