New Words Without Borders: Writing from the Indian Ocean – Plus Etgar Keret

The May issue of Words Without Borders is out now, featuring writing from the Indian Ocean. It also has a story fro perennial favorite, Etgar Keret.

This month we spotlight writing from the islands of Mauritius, Reunion, Madagascar, and Mayotte.  Francophone writing in the region dates back to the eighteenth century; the coexistence of French with the area’s other languages (Creole, Malagasy, Arabic, and Hindi), and its relationship to French colonialism, inflect writers’ thematic, stylistic, and syntactic choices.  See how J. William Cally, Ananda Devi, Nassuf Djailani, Michel Ducasse, Boris Gamaleya, Alain Gordon-Gentil, Carpanin Marimoutou and Françoise Vergès, Esther Nirina, Barlen Pyamootoo, Jean-Luc Raharimanana, and Umar Timol imaginatively engage with this complex heritage. And guest editor Francoise Lionnet provides an illuminating introduction. Elsewhere, Mauritian writer Nathacha Appanah joins Etgar Keret and Wojciech Jagielski in writing from cities not their own. And we deliver the third installment of Sakumi Tamaya’s “The Hole in the Garden.”
By Françoise Lionnet
Francophone writing in the Mascarene region dates back to the eighteenth century. more>>>

Ludwig and I Kill Hitler for No Particular Reason

By Etgar Keret       
Translated from Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger
“Adolf, it’s you, I didn’t recognize you at first without the ridiculous mustache.” more>>>

Etgar Keret Short Story Like Bats at Asymptote Journal

Asymptote Journal has a short story from Etgar Keret. I’m not sure what collection it is from, certainly not the newest one, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, or any of the others as I recall. You can read some of his other stories here.

Sometimes I think about him, and then I miss him terribly. Especially at night. I can’t fall asleep. I’m too hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s never exactly right. Some animals don’t sleep either. They go out to hunt at night, but at night I don’t even get out of bed to pee. At night, I don’t even get up to go to the refrigerator. I once told him I was afraid of roaches. After that, the whole summer, every time we had sex, he’d hoist me on his back and take me to the shower or the bathroom like a taxi. I’d wrap my arms around his back and go wherever I wanted. Mom says that’s why he left me.

Etgar Keret Story at Guernica

Guernica has a good short story from Etgar Keret. It has fun with the idea of the writer and is one of his stories that touches more directly on the troubles. The story is from his forthcoming book to be published in April, I believe.

“Tell me a story,” the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands. The situation, I must admit, is anything but pleasant. I’m someone who writes stories, not someone who tells them. And even that isn’t something I do on demand. The last time anyone asked me to tell him a story, it was my son. That was a year ago. I told him something about a fairy and a ferret—I don’t even remember what exactly—and within two minutes he was fast asleep. But here the situation is fundamentally different. Because my son doesn’t have a beard, or a pistol. Because my son asked for the story nicely, and this man is simply trying to rob me of it.

Short Story by Etgar Keret at Tin House

Tin House has a short story form Etgar Keret.

Every night, after she had finally left him, he’d fall asleep in a different spot: on the sofa, in an armchair in the living room, on the mat on the balcony like some homeless bum. Every morning, he made a point of going out for breakfast. Even prisoners get a daily walk in the yard, don’t they? At the café they always gave him a table set for two, and sat him across from an empty chair. Always. Even when the waiter specifically asked him whether he was alone. Other people would be sitting there in twos or threes, laughing or tasting each other’s food, or fighting over the bill, while Avichai sat by himself eating his Healthy Start—orange juice, muesli with honey, decaf double espresso with warm low-fat milk on the side. Of course it would have been nicer if someone had sat down across from him and laughed with him, if there had been someone to argue with over the bill and he’d have to struggle, to hand the money to the waitress saying, “Don’t take it from him! Mickey, stop. Just stop! This one’s on me.” But he didn’t really have anyone to do that with, and breakfast alone was ten times better than staying home.

The Girl on the Firdge by Etgar Keret – A Review

The Girl on the Fridge
Etgar Keret
Farrar, Straus and Grioux 2008, pg 171

Etgar Keret’s work is often marked by a sense that one is in a slightly different reality. It isn’t surrealism, just a place where you might be able to buy for 9.99 the meaning of life. In the stories of Keret that purchase never really works out as one would want, and usually the charters don’t so much as regret their decisions as abandon them as just yet another of life’s let downs.  The stories in The Girl on the Fridge aren’t quite as fantastic (see my review of The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God), but there is still that sense that what one wants doesn’t always work out. Keret’s stories are very short and he has the ability to zero in on those moments with great precision, stripping away everything except those small moments of disappointment.

In The Real Winner of the Preliminary Games, a group of men get together every few weeks to talk and drink. They have a ritual to it and the evenings allow them to not so much find answers to their problems, but find that they are not so bad.  Towards the end one of the men says he’s feed up and is going to commit suicide. His friend, Eitan, talks him out of it. But Eitan, in a moment that has that feeling of melancholy that is just below the surface of many Keret stories takes out his M 16.

“If I want to, I can shoot,” he said out loud. He ordered his brain to pull the trigger. His finger obeyed, but stopped halfway. He could do it, he wasn’t scared. He just had to make sure he wanted to. He thought about it for a few seconds. Maybe in the general scheme of things he couldn’t find any meaning to life, but on a smaller scale it was okay. Not always, but a lot of the time. He wanted to live, he really did. That’s all there was to it. Eitan gve his finger another order to make sure he wasn’t kidding himself. It still seemed prepared to do whatever he wanted. He put the gun on half cock and pushed the safety back in. If not for those four beers, he’d never even have tried it. He would have made up an excuse, said it was just a dumb test, that it didn’t mean anything. But like Uzi said, that was the whole point. He put the gun back in the drawer and went into the bathroom to puke. then he washed his face and soaked his head in the sink. Before drying himself, he took a look in the mirror. A skinny guy, we hair, a little pale, like that runner on TV. He wasn’t jumping or yelling or anything, but he’d never felt this good.

Eitan puts the gun away because that is what one does. He then feels a rush. Is it from the test or the rush that comes after throwing up? Whatever it is, it isn’t the answer to anything, just the relief from melancholic doubt. Tomorrow it may return and when the men return to the bar they’ll talk each other into living again because that’s what one does.

In one of his more fantastical ones, Freeze, a man gains the power to make the world freeze. When the world freezes he takes the opportunity to have sex with the best looking women (rape is what he is actually doing although the character would never admit it). At first it works out great for him, but eventually some one tells him that is not good because the women aren’t asking for it. So he then begins a series of experiments, telling the women why they are in their frozen state to scream during sex. Nothing satisfies him until he realizes all he has to do is tell the woman to love him for himself. Of course that works and the woman loves him. All through the story, though, you have a man getting what he wants only to find it is what he wants and in relationships is isn’t just the one person that matters. He is satisfied, but there is always the lingering doubt that what the relationship, any relationship is built on are demands that only one wants. That he can command someone to love him for himself is in of it self contradictory and at the same time a parody of what should be a operating principle for couples. It is a disturbing story that leaves one wondering what loving one for oneself really means.

Keret often uses the perception of children to expose the strangeness of the adult world. In Moral Something, a man is sentenced to hang and the kids who have seen the sentencing on TV try to understand what happens we someone is hung. Since the adults are trying to protect them from the information and the kids only have roumor they have to experiment. They hang a stray cat, but of course it settles nothing because they don’t know if they have done it right. The boys argue over it and when the prettiest girl in school walks by she tells them they are all animals. Keret in that little scene is able to create what the adult world looks like without the veneer of rules, laws, and moral codes. The kids, too, are on that ever present search for the answers that never exist. They don’t know yet, as Eitan in The Real Winner, that there are only approximations, things you settle on because they work even if they aren’t what everyone else is doing.

There are dozens of brief little encounters such as these that show Keret as a master of the form. His vision of a world that never quite operates with the same rules as ours does makes him one of the most interesting short story writers around. While The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God is a little more fantastical and, therefore, more interesting, The Girl on the Fridge is still a welcome addition to his body of work.

Tin House Summer 2010 – A Quick Review

I picked up the summer issue of Tin House because, a. I was at writers conference and I felt bad for the person selling them, b. it had an interview with Etgar Keret, someone whose work I really like, and c. I got two issues for the price of one. The Keret didn’t disappoint, although, is probably not worth the price alone of the Tin House. Also included is an interview with David Shields, but it was quickly uninteresting to me as I find his stance tedious (you can read the article on line here). What was a welcome change was the quality of the fiction. I had never read a issue before and I was unsure about the quality of the work. Over all the whole magazine was quite good. There were several stories worth noting.

Snow White, Red Rose by Lydia Millet was a solid set of twisting revelations from a narrator who befriends two girls. The questions, naturally, is what is going to happen. She holds the suspense well, but as often happens when you are heading into criminality, the ending suffers because the crime is always so mater of fact is undoes all the excitement you had with the suspense.

The White Glove by Steven Millhauser reminded me of some of Cristina Fernandez Cubas short stories. Both deal with events that seem supernatural, or threatening, but are never quiet revealed to be as horrid as you might think. It is as if the author plays with the tension to let you imagination get away with you even as you are reading. A narrator tells of his enchantment with a girl in his class and her family. The family is perfect, yet she wears a mysterious white glove and he is uncertain why she seems so shy about it. Is it abuse? What could be happening?

The Wheelbarow from Sophie McManus’ story of a vet just back from a war zone showed great comfort with slang and in its economy made for a taught story rich with details. It was a good change to have to puzzle out some of the expressions; it invigorates the writing.

The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God by Etgar Keret – a Review

The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be GodThe Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories
Etgar Keret
Toby Press, 200 pg

The Israeli author Etgar Keret’s short stories don’t describe reality as much as they render it suspect. They are seldom predictable and at his best he surprises the reader, not with a twist, the cheapest of devices, but a brief digression from the real into a longing whose desires can never quite be fulfilled.  At the same time he never looses sight of modern life with its quotidian fast food shops and dead end jobs, and illustrates it with a spare writing style that is short on introspection but whose reality is unfixed and open to question. The brevity and the unexpected never make his stories seem extreme. Instead, there is a naturalness to the incidents he describes, an almost jaded quality, as if that same tired response to mass produced culture that surrounds everyone, especially his characters, has so removed our ability to really see the extraordinary. It is the tension between the ordinary and the strange that make his stories intriguing and reflect a world that has become trapped in its seemingly orderly word.

The story that best illustrates the longing that never quite comes true is Hole in the Wall. A young guy, Uri, is told if he screams a wish into a hole in a wall where an ATM machine had been the wish would come true. He doesn’t believe it and there is a sense that wishes are pointless. Nevertheless, he wishes that an angel would keep him company. One does show up, but he turns out not to be much of a friend. The angel always disappears when Uri needs him, refuses to show his wings, and never wants to fly, afraid someone will see him. Finally, one day the angel and Uri are on the roof of his apartment and he has the impulse to push the angel of the edge of the building to see if he’ll fly. But he doesn’t and falls to his death. Uri notes, “he wasn’t even an angel, just a liar with wings.” The death of the angel upends not only the definition of an angel, it is the frustration of a cultural longing, and in his description of the angel as a different kind of humanity, he extends the cultural fatigue of loneliness in modern life to that of its salves, religion. Screaming for a wish in a hole where an ATM machine had been creates a sense of desperation where economic conditions have slipped and instead of having access to money, the real power to grant wishes, one has to scream for something that is never going to come. Extending the screams into Jewish tradition he a plays on the Wailing Wall, but instead of finding solace in a place of ancient religion, the modern with its disposable infrastructure is the best one can do. It makes for a desperate moment because Uri is left alone again and his searches have ended in futility, leaving him in the same world where the old cultural longings are just as disappointing as the modern commercial ones, and each as transient as the other.

Following the Hole in the Wall in style and theme is his short novella Kneller’s Happy Campers where he constructs and after life that is neither heaven nor hell, but just the same modern city the deceased used to inhabit. It might seem like a form of hell because all the inhabitants of the place are suicides, but if it is hell, it is only the hell of boredom and repetition that comes with a regular job and the ever present need to entertain oneself after, even if there isn’t much to do except to go to the same bars night after night and hope you’ll find someone to date. His vision of the modern hell that is everyday life is one where one feels dull, perhaps anxiety ridden, but nothing is too extreme and the battle for people is to find a way to navigate that. Unfortunately, for the characters in the the story it has lead to suicide. But suicide is not an escape, but a return to that search and the characters continue it, driving to some unknown destination trying to find what they had lost before they committed suicide. Eventually, they get to a strange place where miracles happen but only if they don’t have any meaning and a man called Kneller runs a camp ground where the Messiah King J is planing to perform a great miracle.  J is part Messiah and cult leader and the people follow him hopping for the next revelation. He lives in a great mansion with a pool, squash court, and a buffet pool side. It appears that hell has now become heaven, but again Keret flips the story and the heaven is not as it seems. As in Hole n the Wall, the longing is left unsatisfied and the mysteries wrapped in religion are never answered, but left as just another thing to buy, to engage with temporally. And Miracles, though existing, are nothing more than entertainments devoid of power.

Yet the longing and sometimes melancholy in the characters should not deter one from finding the humor in Keret’s work. He does not write like some of those Central European authors who are so weighed down by the past that even the happiest of times seems miserable. At their most fundamental the stories are funny and full of surprise. And in a story like Breaking the Bank the humor shifts from the black to sympathetic when a boy undermines his dad’s lesson and is unable to destroy the piggy bank that was supposed to teach him value. Keret keeps his humor at a sympathetic level, never satire, and so the stories, even when they go against the character’s longing, don’t make fun, but laugh at the attempts that failed, that could happen to any one.

Keret also writes stories that don’t have fantastical elements, yet these, too, exhibit anxiety and longing. Although, they are not as surprising, it strips the layers to get at his most fundamental elements of his stories. The Flying Santinis is simple enough: a boy wants to join a circus and with the encouragement of his father (this is still Keret after all) he asks the trapeze artist if he can join. He says sure, as long as you can touch your toes, which the boy tries to do, but manages to herniate his disk. The trapeze artist, overcome by the pain and the eagerness of the boy, tells him in the hospital, you could have bent your knees, I wouldn’t have said anything. It is a moment of tenderness, a realization that even when you try your hardest you may not get quite what you want—its just one of those things. Yet Keret is able to infuse a nostalgic longing in the story that deadness the disaster and turns it, along with the trapeze man’s tears it feels as if he almost made it and that was pretty close. Further reducing the pain, is the distance of the narrator, who reports the story like the boy, yet is an adult at the same time. It blurs the line between memory and the present and as in many of his stories, the narrator may no longer be a child, but those inconsistencies children see in the adult world, become a strange reality that adults are shocked by.

Illustrating this best is Shoes, one of several stories that use children and young people to show the way that Israelis look at issues like the Holocaust and the way the young, without a framework of understanding, can interpret what is around them. Shoes begins on Holocaust Memorial Day when a group of students are taken to the Museum of Volhynia Jewry where the narrator, an young boy who is excited by the honor of going to the museum and not its weighty meaning, listens to a Holocaust survivor tell the students that the Germans are evil and he will never forgive them and they still make their products from the bodies of Jews. It is a horrifying image, but the boys can’t grasp it. For them it is just part of a field trip. They can only discuss whether the man with his now frail body could have really strangled a camp guard. The boys are unable to see him as a younger man who might have done that, although, the reader may also question,too, if a weekend prisoner would really have the strength to strangle. A few weeks latter the boy is given a pair of shoes from Germany and he thinks about what the old man has said and he feels guilty. He imagines they are made from his grandfather who had died in the Holocaust. But then he goes to a soccer game and little by little he forgets. After the game, though, he remembers and for a moment feels bad, but then the shoes feel good and he thinks his grandfather must be pleased, even talking to the shoes as if they could hear. It is a risky moment that works because Keret is able to not make fun of the Holocaust, but suggest the solemn honor paid to it can be confusing and in turn make it lose its meaning. How do children interpret the meaning of it when overlaid is the fun of going to the museum? One has the sense that though the Holocaust is in no way similar to commercial culture, the repetition leads to a fatigue that inures one to its power. It is picks up on the feeling in Keret’s other stories. Yet it isn’t dark story, but one where the boy attempts to make his own meaning and, again, this is what often happens with the characters in his stories. The slight readjustment of reality doesn’t disparage the larger world, but allows the character to find a way of integrating parts of it within himself.

The stories of Etgar Keret are both funny and melancholic, a way of readjusting modern reality and turning its loggings upside down. In doing that Keret doesn’t wallow in despair, but constructs something new, something that lets one find a new way to experience modern commercial culture. The ability to that makes his stories a great pleasure to read and think about.

Interview with Etgar Keret at Words Without Borders

Words Without Borders has an interesting interview with the short story writer Etgar Keret about his process and what he thinks of creative writing programs and craft. I am a big fan of his stories and he has been one my most interesting finds in the world of short stories over the last year or two along with Amanda Michalopoulou and Hipólito Navarro. Because his works deviate from the more American tradition of epiphany and craft, I find his work quite refreshing. His take on craft, something I was taught in my earliest creative writing classes and still seems to haunt me like some tedious specter, was interesting. 

DH: Do you think there is an essential difference between what people think a good story is in contemporary American literature and in other parts of the world? I mean, do you see a difference between what is considered a good story here and, say, in Israel?

EK: I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but what I can say about the US is that there are many readers and creative writing professors who are into the tradition of the “well written story,” which is something I completely dislike because it focuses on the craft machine. I tell my students that they should focus on writing “the badly written” good story. There is something paralyzing if you are thinking all the time about the form; it can stop you from focusing on the true passion and emotion. Here I can see that some people could characterize my stories as “shaggy dog stories” because they say, “OK, this is about a guy who went to a bar, etc., but this is not literature” because I don’t write the typical New Yorker story. I think this is very American because it goes with the Protestant work ethic: when you read a story you should see that someone worked very hard on it. But when I write something I want to hide my effort. I want people to feel that I am speaking to them. If it took me two months to write it I want it to look as if I didn’t make any effort. This is something that clashes with the American tradition. If you compare Bob Dylan singing a song with someone from American Idol, the latter sings better, he has a better voice. But the guy from American Idol is thinking about “singing well,” while Bob Dylan is thinking about the song. So the American kind of “well written” story is about creating an American Idol kind of story.

DH: I believe in that, and it makes sense, given the fact that your stories are not premeditated, but they start based on sound or rhythm. Now, you are a writer that in this country we read in translation, so there is problem with that.

EK: The problem is that English is 30/% longer than Hebrew. In Hebrew you can really construct very short sentences. In know this because I work with two very, very creative translators. And many times I don’t want them to be loyal to the text, but to the meter. For example, I have a story that begins with a series of compliments about a guy; but when my translator translated the story, it didn’t work because she wanted to translate the word, but the rhythm didn’t work. So, I told her, “Forget about the word! It should be ta-ta-ta.”

$9.99 – A Review of Animated Etgar Keret

At first it would seem difficult to make a film from the stories of Etgar Keret or at least difficult to make a film with a narrative thread that spanned the film and was not a series of little vignettes. Keret is known for ultra short stories, most under 3000 words, and they are usually not linked together in any discernible way. Instead, they form a chaotic reflection of the sometimes unexplainable in our lives, not a what could happen, but how you react if something similar were to occur. These reactions to things that most likely couldn’t occur—a man with wings, for instance—but illuminate emotions that are otherwise buried by the often tired social realism.

In $9.99 the film makers have continued with Keret’s focus on the unexpected, but have joined many of the stories to create several narrative threads that run throughout the film and smooth what otherwise might have been a choppy film. Even though the stories have been reworked they still contain the element of the unexpected that most manifests itself in this film as a counterweight to the dull, the weight of loneliness in modern life. One thread follows an old man who has lost his wife and is lonely, trying to talk with who ever passes by. One day he meets a man with wings who he takes for an angel. This angel is not angelic, though, but a bum who scrounges money off the old man. While it might seem like a story of a helpless old man, when the old man pushes the angel off the roof to see if he flies the story moves from the melancholy to a rejection of the simple salve the angel represents and at the same time a freedom for the old man.

The stories are always funny, if touched with melancholy and despite the dark ending of the old man and the angel the story is much lighter than it seems. It is the interplay between melancholy and humor, loneliness and hope, that makes the film good. When the unemployed son of a business man buys a book that explains the meaning of life for $9.99, the disappointment isn’t expressed in shouting, but a sadness that expresses affection and as the story of the father and son continues it isn’t the strangeness of the events but how they find release from all their disappointments that makes the film interesting. $9.99 is a great introduction to the world of Etgar Keret and the movie will surprise anyone who has not read his works with its inventiveness.

Jetlag – A Review

Jetlag by Etgar Keret is a short but fascinating collection of five short stories set to drawings by five different Israeli artists: Mira Friedman, Batia Kolton, Rutu Modan, Yirmi Pinkus, Itzik Rennert. Keret, one of Israel’s best writers, creates what might be better called fables. His stories are brief and always have an element of unrealty to them. The unreality, though, is designed to turn the reader back to the strangeness of reality.

The first story is about a magician who suddenly begins to have trouble pulling the rabbit out of the hat. One time he pulls a bloody rabbit’s head from the hat and in a another he pulls a dead baby. But the audience seems to love it and a child keeps the bloody head of the rabbit as a memento. Instead of magic revealing the wondrous, the unfathomable becomes the way the audiences accept death and the grotesque as entertainment. The magician gives up his trade, and finishes the story saying,

…I don’t do much of anything. I just lie in bed and think about the rabbit’s head and the baby’s body. As if they’re some clues to a riddle, as if somebody was trying to tell me something; that now it’s not really the best of times for rabbits or for babies. That it’s not the best of times for magicians.

In the story Jetlag the narrator finds himself on an airplane where a flight attendant is paying extra attention to him. At first it seems as if she wants him to join the clichéd mile high club with her. A ten year-old girl at his side tells him he should go have sex with her, then claims she is a 30 year-old dwarf smuggling heroin. Eventually, the narrator goes to the back of the plane to talk to the flight attendant. She doesn’t want to have sex with him, but instead, wants to give him a parachute because the plane has orders to crash. The flight attendant says they crash a plane every year or two so that passengers will take flight safety seriously. As the story ends he says, the rescue looked quite heart warming on TV. Again, Keret takes liberties with a reality that has become all too common—the disaster coverage on TV—and uses it as an opportunity to look at it as a fiction, switching genres to make it observable. What should be a horror, becomes just entertainment.

In each of the stories Keret is able to say something about modern society, its violence, its loneliness, its spectator culture, and question how it effects us. His stories are marvels of compression and an unreality that seems real.