Translating Monsters into Songbirds: the Stories of Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret is an Israeli author of urgent, cryptic, popular fiction. His fantasies can be read as coping strategies for a violent world of irresolvable moral ambiguities

Many of Etgar Keret's stories concern attempts to overcome trauma through magical thinking. This  puts his work in the tradition of Hassidic tales and fairy tales -- which he has told medarabnews.com are the two main sources of his inspiration – while also refracting his experience as the child of Holocaust survivors.

He told “The Believer” that his first story, “Pipes,” was inspired by a friend who committed suicide during military service in Israel. A boy fails a psychological test – shown a picture of a boy with no ears, he cannot see what is wrong with the picture. Failing this test narrows the boy's educational opportunities. After growing up he gets a factory job, where he makes pipes and rolls marbles down them. Eventually he makes a pipe so complicated that when he rolls a marble down it, the marble doesn't come down the other end. He makes a bigger pipe in the same shape and uses it to make himself disappear – what he finds at the other end of the pipe is a kind of afterlife for misfit angels.

Keret's father survived the Holocaust by hiding in a hole underground, and Keret's stories are full of holes that connect worlds. “Kneller's Happy Campers” describes an afterlife for people who commit suicide, an afterlife that looks just like Israel. In the story, Israeli men who committed suicide go to bars trying to pick up Israeli women who committed suicide. At one point the men find themselves in a Palestinian bar, and an Israeli suicide asks a Palestinian suicide, “Is it true that when you people go out on a job they promise you seventy nymphomaniac virgins in Kingdom Come?...” The Palestinian replies, “Sure, they promise, and look what it got me. Lukewarm vodka.” The Israeli says, “So you're just a sucker in the end,” and the Palestinian says, “Sure thing. And you, what did they promise you?”

This has the tone of an ironic joke from the shtetl – laconic, fatalistic, paradoxical, mournful. Keret's Israel feels more like a continuation of diaspora than its climax. It's an Israel where, as in the story “Shoshi,” basic training may continue even after death.

Keret's is a world of impossible ethical dilemmas. In “Good Intentions” a man feels so much empathy for others that his life becomes intolerable – he tries to hire contract killers to kill him, but is so clearly a good person that none of them can bring themselves to do so. In “Atonement,” a man forgives his wife for whatever she did to provoke him into beating her -- “And he forgave her and so did God, and the timing was truly perfect, with only thirty seconds to go till it's too late to offer forgiveness.” Timing is crucial in Fairyland. In “Missing Kissinger,” a man cuts out his girlfriend's heart to give to his mother, and his mother's heart to give to his girlfriend. The story ends with a classic Keret punchline -- “There are two kinds of people, those who like to sleep next to the wall and those who like to sleep next to the ones who'll push them out of bed.” Keret is also the author of a sketch for Israeli TV in which two Israeli sports functionaries try to talk the German in charge of an Olympic hurdles event into giving the Israeli contestant a head start because of the Holocaust.

Keret's colloquial, accessible style is one reason for his popularity – although his flipness is easier for his American imitators to capture than is the sense of urgency he conveys. His stories tend to feel rough around the edges – he reported to Salt Hill Journal that he tells his writing students, “I hate the idea of a well-written story. I am all for this idea of a badly written good story.” He describes miraculous events in a tone of brash, macho irritation – the voice of someone spoiling for a quarrel, while remaining soft underneath, perhaps reflecting the way Israelis of his generation see themselves. Reading Keret can resemble being hijacked by a crazy driver who changes lanes almost randomly but still knows the quickest way to wherever he's going.

A Keret story that first appeared in English here on OpenDemocracy concerns a boy whose dog loves him but attacks everyone else. The father keeps getting rid of the dog, but it always returns, even after the father kills it. (The story was originally called “Shooting Clint,” but in later versions the dog has been renamed Tuvia -- not after the Polish-Jewish partisan Tuvia Bielski, but after Tuvia Tsafir, an Israeli TV star who impersonates politicians.) Keret told KGB Bar Lit magazine of his annoyance when some readers interpreted this story too narrowly. “The dog represented to them the Arab, and the father the Israeli establishment. The boy, according to this strange interpretation, is the Israeli younger generation. I found this interpretation really simplistic and untrue.” This is fair enough – after all Stephen King, say, might write a story with much the same plot, in which case people would tend to read it just as being about a dog coming back to life. Perhaps it's enough to say that the dog has something to do with the return of the repressed -- as does the vampire cafe owner in Keret's story “No Politics,” who bites to death anyone who violates his rule against discussing politics.

“Siren” is a story set on Holocaust Remembrance Day, told from the viewpoint of a schoolboy named Eli. Mikey, a boy on the verge of becoming a naval commando, steals the janitor Sholem's bike to celebrate. During the Holocaust, Sholem was a sonderkommando, a death camp prisoner whose task was to dispose of dead bodies. Eli rats on Mikey for stealing Sholem's bike, and Mikey is about to beat Eli up when Eli is saved by the memorial siren – every Holocaust Remembrance Day, there is a moment of silence across Israel where every citizen stands at attention to remember those who died in the Holocaust. While Mikey and everyone else is immobilized by the siren, Eli slips through a hole in the fence and goes home.

Being able to move while everyone around you is frozen is a classic childhood fantasy – used in stories by authors as varied as H.G. Wells and David Foster Wallace, and indeed by Keret himself in at least one other story – but in “Siren,” a story now part of the curriculum for Israeli schoolchildren, Keret has done something unique by acting out this fantasy in what's technically a realist story.

Perhaps to be a survivor is on some level to believe in magic. Keret's stories teem with angels, dwarves, and circus performers. In some ways he is less readily classified with other authors in Hebrew than he is with certain writers of speculative fiction short stories in English, for example Avram Davidson, Harlan Ellison, Robert Sheckley, Roger Zelazny, Neil Gaiman, or Kelly Link.

Fantastic literature helps to negotiate the gulf between our subjective needs and objective reality. In “Second Chance,” a technology is discovered to let people reaching critical moments in life, instead of having to choose either one road or the other, continue along both, one after the other. The hero of the story is alone in choosing not to take advantage of this technology, but when he tells his grandchildren about his heroic commitment to a single life path, they don't believe him, assuming he must have a second life he's embarrassed to tell them about.  Keret tells us that we have choices even where we cannot perceive them.

His newest collection, Suddenly a Knock at the Door, will not be appear in English until 2012, but the stories from it that have already appeared in U.S. magazines point to a new level of maturity, polish, and complexity. In “What, Of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?” a maker of documentaries travels around Israel asking people what they'd wish for if they had a magic fish to grant them three wishes. He finds an old Russian, Sergei, who actually has a magic fish – and has already used up his first two wishes. Sergei is scared the filmmaker will steal his fish, so he kills the filmmaker, then on the fish's advice is forced to use up his last wish on restoring him to life. This is a parable as efficient and poignant as a conjuring trick. It's only after the filmmaker's death that we learn the fish can talk. Right when a murder happens, the story shifts genres into fantasy, providing a way for Sergei to make things right, but at a price – he is alone in the world now, with no fish to talk to.

The Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once claimed that one can know the essence of a country by its jokes.

In “What Animal Are You?” a German Public Television reporter asks Keret to write, so that she can take a picture of him writing. From here, Keret segues into one of his standard themes, the impossibility of changing the past, and from there on to a characteristic gag about having no one to take out his frustrations on: “Right-wingers can take it out on Arabs. Racists on blacks. But those of us who belong to the liberal left are trapped. We've boxed ourselves in.”

The story closes with Keret's three-year-old son asking the reporter in Hebrew what kind of animal she is. Keret translates the question into English. The reporter says she is a monster here to eat pretty little children. In Hebrew, Keret tells his son the reporter says she is a red-feathered songbird who flew here from a faraway land. There are remarkably many levels to this interchange. It's a realistic conversation in that Germans often have a dark sense of the appropriate way to tease three-year-olds, while Keret has a better idea of what might make his son burst into tears. At a fairytale level, the moral is that interpreters need to be wily. There's a political idea also about what to pass on and not to pass on to the next generation. And all this gains extra resonance from the fact that translating monsters into songbirds has been Keret's central creative stratagem all along.

About the author

James Warner is the author of All Her Father's Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here

His openDemocracy column is Standing Perpendicular