In his first blog post for our online book club on Etgar Keret's Girl on the Fridge, Adam Rovner discusses the hyper-real in Keret's story “The Night the Buses Died.” We hope you'll read this and the other essays in the series and join in with your comments.—Editors
Keret's “The Night the Buses Died” appeared in his first collection, Pipelines. Despite its brevity—or because of it—the story bears all the hallmarks of his later work. The Hebrew original is a mere seven paragraphs long, but nonetheless manages to distill a world both alien and familiar. In Keret's vision, Tel Aviv is suffused with an indifferent magic. The childhood daydream of inanimate playthings coming alive becomes here a disappointing illusion. Rather than a wizard's magic circle, Keret offers us the necromancy of the central bus station in which “the cassettes at the music stands” spontaneously crack in grief when the buses die. We don't learn why the buses are “all dead,” how the buses could ever have been alive, or whether the protagonist really mourns their passing. Keret's fantastic world remains elusive in its matter-of-factness.
As the story opens, the narrator patiently waits at his bus stop “for something to change.” And when something does, when he comes upon a bus “gutted and prone in the middle of Ben-Gurion Avenue,” he feels a twinge of sadness he cannot explain. But rather than explore his emotions, or “crack” like the cassettes, he merely wanders on to find another bus stop to wait in. The dreadful miracle of the buses' mass death makes no psychological impact on him. Explanations and analyses are useless in Keret's world; all that his characters can manage is to file idiosyncratic reports from the front-line of the hyper-real.
“The Night the Buses Died” first appeared in 1992, right before the front-line would move into Israel's downtowns in a terribly real way. In 1994, Hamas launched a wave of suicide bombings on buses, bus stations, and public places all across Israel that lasted for more than a decade. Today, Keret's once innocent tale feels darkly prophetic. His image of buses as “disemboweled shells, their shattered innards strewn on the black and silent asphalt” foreshadows the newscasts of burnt-out buses and volunteers combing sidewalks for body parts. In a country where humans can become bombs, what's to stop buses from becoming corpses? Reality is not what can be seen, Keret suggests, but what can be imagined. And since Keret imagines more than most, his readers' sense of the world is forever altered.
It's hard to keep Keret to yourself. Passionate readers of his work always want to share the news of his strange gospel with others—and we at Words Without Borders hope you'll want to spread the word, too. Post your feedback to this month's book club content, or let others know what your favorite stories in “Girl on the Fridge” are. All this month I'll be moderating book club talk-back, and want readers to have the chance to ask questions and offer their opinions on this fine writer's work.
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.
You can find links to other essays in this series over here:
Keret events this March in Boston and Chicago.
Adam Rovner puts Etgar Keret in context.
Miriam Shlesinger talks about translating Keret.
Phillip Lopate discusses the roots of Keret's work.
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.