Etgar Keret’s fiction

A review of two collections of Israeli author Etgar Keret’s short stories: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, and The Nimrod Flip-Out. First published in the Times Literary Supplement, March 2005

Ted Hughes argued that Ovid’s Metamorphoses “establish a rough register of what it feels like to live in the psychological gulf that opens at the end of an era”, the crucial historical moment Ovid straddled being the birth of Christ within the Roman Empire. Etgar Keret is more directly indebted to Kafka than to Ovid; yet the metamorphoses and ecstatic juxtapositions of his stories map a similar psychological gulf, engendered by the collision of twentieth-century atrocity with biblical history.

Keret’s subject is Israel, and what it means to be Israeli; his stories flick between the banal and the tragic with a satirist’s instinct for the telling detail, the self-revealing comment or gesture. But he is also committed to what Hughes terms “the act of metamorphosis . . . the unendurable intensity that lifts the whole episode onto the supernatural or divine plane”, and it is this that makes his work exceptional: its insistence on imagination as a moral faculty, clashing possibilities of an entirely transformed reality against the brutalities and self-preserving routines of daily life in Israel.

These two volumes draw on four collections of short stories that have, since 1992, sold over 100,000 copies in their original Hebrew and made Keret – born near Tel Aviv in 1967, the child of Holocaust survivors – one of the most prominent voices of his generation. Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston provide most of the translations, and render Keret’s prose into taut, slangy American English, shifting easily between teen chat and newscast urgency.

The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories, drawn mostly from Keret’s earlier work, rapidly establishes his credentials as an enemy of taboos and false decorums. Highlights include an Arab suicide bomber bemoaning his anti-climactic afterlife running a bar, the son of the head of Mossad executing a school bully, and a kitten called Rabin being run over by a scooter; scenarios which resemble one another only in their anarchic inventiveness and contempt for political sensibilities.

Yet Keret is neither a cynic nor a relativist, and his brand of postmodernism is refreshingly remote from the wised-up games of MTV. An award-winning film-maker himself, Keret both exploits and undercuts all the conventions of quick-cut contemporary television-styling. “Cocked and Locked”, narrated by an Israeli soldier taunted by an Arab, is typical. We open with a scenario lifted as much from films or video games as from life – an enemy seen through the sights of a gun, an officer telling his man to keep cool – when our narrator throws away the script: “I grab the butt with both hands, swing the rifle over my head a few times, and suddenly let go”.

What follows is more disturbing than either catharsis or conciliation. The Arab grabs the gun, which turns out to be rusted solid, while the Israeli grabs him and begins to ram his head against a telephone pole. “With the rifle in his hand”, our narrator thinks, “he’ll be just like me. His mother and his sisters will make it with Jews, his friends will vegetate in hospital beds, and he’ll stand there facing me like a fucking asshole with a rifle in his hand and won’t be able to do a thing.” The hatefulness and futility of both their roles, the impotence of military force, boil over into this animal vengeance.

The Nimrod Flip-Out, a thematically denser collection than its precursor, is populated by similarly tormented liars and deniers, its fantastic excursions often saner and more hopeful than the reality they depart from. Truth is constantly sought, effaced and reformulated – a woman is killed by a suicide bomb, and from the autopsy turns out to have been terminally ill with cancer, information which is then withheld from her husband by the pathologist; a beautiful girl transforms into a hairy man at night, but finds love with a partner who enjoys his company.

In the semi-autobiographical story of the title, a spell of insanity begins to rotate among three Israelis after their friend Nimrod commits suicide during military service; the “flip-out” binds them to each other and to their past in a permanent adolescence of private codes and distorted space. Both Nimrod’s suicide and his friends’ mania are also, however, responses to the world they inhabit, in which the friction between adult and adolescent worlds, military and civilian duties, is itself an almost unbearable kind of madness.

In spite of this, the thirty-two tales of The Nimrod Flip-Out form a wildly, wonderfully optimistic collection, close to sentimentality in places but unabashedly enthralled by the integrity of innocence. “For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage)” follows twenty-seven-year-old Nachum, who responds to an advertisement promising to explain the meaning of life, and who receives a booklet doing exactly this. Having grasped ultimate truth, Nachum’s responses to two further advertisements – “how to win over even the most indifferent listener” and “Turn Enemies into Friends in Seven Easy Lessons” – duly lead to global peace. The story has a double impact. On one hand, its exhilarating momentum is hugely appealing; on the other, the resolute small-mindedness of Nachum’s father points towards the ineffectiveness of even ultimate knowledge without a will to change.

Keret’s stories are firmly on Nachum’s side: making the case for innocence, for the refusal to read our present as an immobile destiny. “Unendurable intensity” and conflict are the genesis of his work; but its gift is to remind us that many things in both Israel and the wider world ought not to be endured.