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.

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Perhaps Not Borges – Alex Epstein and Israeli Flash Fiction

PEN and the Jewish Daily Forward have an interview and excerpts from the Israeli writer Alex Epstein’s new book of flash fictions. They are sometimes metaphysical, sometimes meta-fiction, often cryptic, but play with simple images and frozen moments to capture the essence of a thought, an idea, or a impression.  I didn’t like them all, but several, especially those at the forward (The Name of the Moon and Blue Has No south) used brief images to create a larger picture of really is happening in the unwritten story, which is the mark of a good sudden fiction. I would like to give the book a look, but I’m afraid I would find his work a bit repetitive.

I don’t know about you, but I get tired of the Borges moniker attached to any author who writes about books and doubles. Enough, already, and lets just say writing about book is just one of those things writers do, in part, because that is what they know so well. I love Borges (well until the Aleph or so, after that he starts to repeat himself) but I also want to know there is something else out there too.

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco – A Review

Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel
Joe Sacco, 432 pages, Metropolitan Books

Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza is his most ambitious work to date, both in page size and in the depth of his reporting. It is not only a book about current events as all of them are, but a detailed examination of events in Gaza in the mid 50’s. The search for witnesses of the events in Khan Younis and Raffa not only make the book more involved, opening questions of memory and truth, but also creates a contrasting history that is frustrating in its continuation of a conflict that has existed over 60 years.

The book is covers two different areas, the events in Khanunis and Raffa and what led up to them, and the events in Gaza during the early 2000’s before Hamas took over Gaza. Sacco spends most of his time investigating the history in part because he wants to look at some lesser known events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Sacco it is not only the events themselves that are interesting, but the process of creating the story, the way memory is shaped by the survivors, current events,  and those taking down the stories. Sacco makes it clear that the memories of the survivors and witnesses to these events vary in reliably. Often Sacco would find people who mixed events, or, worse for Sacco, wanted only to push a political agenda. When Sacco finds a fidayeen veteran he shows repeated scenes of the man talking about events he thinks are important, avoiding what Sacco is after, but Sacco continues on, sure the man has the story he is looking for. Eventually he get what he is looking for, but throughout the book is the interplay of the journalist and the story. As the he goes deeper and deeper into researching the story it appears he becomes intoxicated by the act of searching for the story, knowing what will actually be relevant. In doing so, he controls the narrative, yet his depiction of the process is a refreshing reflection on the act of journalism. Sacco has always been aware in his works how journalists become adventure seekers and how that distorts part of the story. His Christmas with Karadzic in War’s End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996 is probably his clearest expression of the phenomenon.

From all the interviews and archival research (20 pages of the book are reprints of archival documents) Sacco tells the little known story of mass killings of Palestinian refugees in Khan Younis and Raffa by the Israeli Army. While exact numbers are not clear, all together a few hundred may have died in these incidents. In Khan Younis the survivors tell of a systematic rounding up of men between 15 and 60 and their mass execution and the forced quick burial. Since most of what happened in Khan Younis was witnessed by just a few survivors, Sacco only has a couple testimonies of Palestinian men who escaped the shooting. There are plenty of post incident witnesses, the women and children who helped in the burials, along with UN reports that say something happened, and Israeli reports that say the soldiers were panicked and shot in self defense. Sacco’s rendering of the survivor’s testimony is vivid and it is clear that he thinks that the Palestinian story is what happened.

The events in Raffa, on the other hand, were less brutal and so there are many more survivors. In Raffa, the Israeli army rounded up all the men and sent them through a gantlet where they had to jump over barbed wire while being clubbed by soldiers. Sacco notes that the memories of the survivors don’t always agree, but from each of repeated images he finds he structures a narrative that he thinks is most likely what happened. As with Khan Younis, the Israeli’s come off as brutal and arbitrary, more interested in killing and terrorizing than finding fidayeen in amongst the refugees. The story of Raffa is the most compellingly researched and has the best interplay between memory and journalism.

But what preceded the incidents? Sacco explains some of the history that had occurred since the 1948 war when Palestinian refugees spilled into Gaza. He notes that the border was easy to cross and little by little a series of tit-for-tat  killings and attacks by refugees, Israeli’s and Egyptian sponsored terrorist squads called the fidayeen, led to a state of violence where the refugees in Gaza became victims of power plays between Egypt and Israel. The cross border attacks had gone on for several years and both sides had hardened their positions substantially. Sacco includes a quote from Moshe Dayan who noted that Israel had to be strong, but in doing so the Palestinians, too, would harden and continue to fight. It is amongst these incidents the larger incidents in Khan Younis and Raffa occurred.

For Sacco, it is relatively obvious that the Israelis committed the abuses described in the books even though they deny they did. He notes that even right wing historian Benny Morris agrees that there were killings in the two refugee camps. However, given the state of tensions between the two sides it seems impossible for something even resembling agreement to be reached on what happened.

The notion of agreement and the problematic search for the past, continually surfaces amongst the modern day inhabitants who are only interested in the present and continually tell Sacco why do you bother with the past, it doesn’t help the present. Recovering the past doesn’t feed one, but given the endless tit-for-tat that can consume one’s perspective, a look back at the historical can help. Sacco’s nuanced reflection on one little part of the past is an excellent look at some of the events that had served to lock the conflict in its current stalemate. Unfortunately, his book will probably be taken by many as belonging to one side.

$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.

Amos Kenan, Israeli Writer Has Passed Away

I don’t know much about Amos Kenan, just what the NY Times obit says, and I have a feeling I won’t read him because I don’t have the time, but the obituary is worth the read just to get the sense of the broadness of writing in Israel. The only book that seems to be readily available in English at Amazon is The Road To Ein Harod. The times give it this brief mention:

His most successful novel was “The Road to Ein Harod,” an Orwellian mixture of history, fantasy and philosophy in which an Israeli and an Arab are thrown together after a military coup sends Israel hurtling toward fascism.

Wikipedia has a little more about Kenan.

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.

Waltz With Bashir – A Review

To use the word beautiful is obscene, and powerful is the over used cousin of interesting, and so the best word to describe Waltz With Bahir, the brilliant film from Ari Folman that captures the alienation and denial that comes with the savagery of war, is unsettling. From its blend of haunting images and music to its searing yet dispassionate exploration of one man’s participation in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Waltz With Bashir is not just a simple war film, but a pained conscience from one of the more ugly episodes between Israel and Beirut.

From the outset as a pack of wild dogs run down an Israeli street, knocking over chairs and tables in outdoor cafés only to stop and look stare up at a haunted veteran, you know the film is going to mix the horrific and disturbed flash backs to not only explain the war itself, but its power to still haunt the survivors. At first images—the pack of dogs, men bathing under flare light—are shown without any explanation and they seem otherworldly, figments of an unsettled mind. All you have are the uncontextualized images as if to simulate the fragmentary nature of memory. Folman, though, can’t can’t remember what happened during the war. All he can remember is swimming on the Beirut sea shore at night while flares light sky. It is one of those hauntingly beautiful moments of cinematographic war that maybe shouldn’t exist, but gives one the impression of complete senselessness—why should one even have the chance to bathe as if it were your private beach, while bombs are falling else where? Yet like a similar scene in Apocolapse Now that makes beauty out of the perverse it shows the soldiers as they truly are: isolated in a world where beauty can become flares over a destroyed city.

To find recover his memory, Folman begins to interview his comrades. The men often talk for some time and through the interviews the film regains its documentary quality. The interviews give the story more than just one voice and let the soldiers have a chance to speak for themselves. They also help to illustrate Folman’s point that memory of war, especially the most traumatic incidents, are seldom remember accurately, if at all. Between the interviews Folman recreates the scenes the men describe. The scenes are typical of so many soldiers sent into modern, urban warfare—young men who are scared, who shoot at anything, and are more interested in drinking and going to clubs, and whose frustrated ambivalence only makes the lives of the populace worse. There are the heroic moments when a soldier swims to safety after all his comrades are killed, and the horrific when the men shoot up a family in a car.

Folman continues to weave scenes together, some adding more details, others countering what came before, but each succeeding scene showing the war in darker and darker terms, until he finally gets to the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It is here that the full weight of the move comes and it is clear that for Folman this was the worst part of the war for him and even though he didn’t remember the camps, he could remember an image that he shows over and over and only at the camps do we understand it. We understand that the movie, like the war itself, has been moving relentlessly towards the massacre and each of the interviewees, soldiers like himself, tell what little part they had, but how they knew or sensed that something was wrong or are just haunted by it now. And when the killing is done and the soldiers move back into the camps they describe what they see and at first it is drawn, an animation like the rest of the movie, but then Folman switches to actual fotage. Perhaps the animation is no longer subtule; perhaps it places too many layers between the actual and the viewer. It is strong stuff and he wisely ends the movie there with little comment.

For Folman the war was a senseless in so many ways and Israel deserves a great deal of blame for the massacre. The movie portrays the whole incursion into Beruit as a mistake that didn’t lead to anything positive. It lead to senseless deaths of Israelis and Beruitis and in Israel no one even seemed to care. In one of the more disillusioning moments, Folman returns home to Israel for a 48 hour leave and finds that life has gone on as if there wasn’t a war going on. He notes that in the 1973 war everyone stayed at home, but in this war they are at clubs. Folman, if he was not already uncertain about the war, now feels farther from its purpose and farther from the civilian world that doesn’t even care what is going on in its name. It is in these contrasts, between home and the front, massacres and soldiers on drinking bouts, that Folamn questions the war and suggests if it was so easy to ignore, so easy to get carried away, so easy to feel purposeless, then why did we fight it, and maybe this is why he had forgotten it.

Stylistically, Waltz With Bashir is impressive, blending what seems at times completely realistic with the unreal that only animation can provide. Although documentary suggests hard edged reality, the use of animation brings a greater realism to the story because it illustrates the perceptions and memories more than the flat realism that stock footage could provide. Moreover, animation lets the movie movie past pure documentary into the interpretive where the viewer sees the film maker’s interpretation of the scenes, even though the viewer is also hearing the narration from the participant. It creates a dual layer of story telling and one that checks the veracity of the other. The use of music, too, is more than just documentary filler, but a the subtle rejoinder to the hopelessness. The score itself is sparse, and in between are Enola Gay from OMD and This Is Not A Love Song from PIL that add a dark and disjointed feel to the film. The scene in the club when Folman is on leave uses PIL’s sarcastic sensability to underscore the futility of Folman’s experience.

All of these elements, the animation, the score, the interviews, make Waltz With Bashir a brilliant and troubling film that will stick with one for quite some time.