In many ways, Etgar Keret is the writer of my generation. We were born into the same world, we rode the same roads, we watched the same TV shows. When his first two books came out – “Pipelines” in 1992 and “Missing Kissinger” in 1994 – it was the first time that a writer from our generation wrote in our language.
People called it lean language, but I’m not sure this was an apt description. The language was devoid of flowery rhetoric and gave voice to a generation that scorned poetical writing and no longer believed in it.
We were chatting, I don’t recall about what, and I said something about Holocaust jokes. He froze and then slowly repeated my words back to me: 'Ho-lo-caust jokes? Ho-lo-caust jokes?'
We understood Keret and the path he was taking, outside the mainstream that was captivated by lofty words and “important” literature that dealt with Zionism and the pain of the shooters and criers, and spoke at such a high level when we knew we were really so small. We hated yuppies and their early SUVs, we weren’t about to commit to anything – certainly not to talk seriously or pretend that we were important and that anything we said mattered.
Twenty-six years have gone by. Keret became an international star, a little matter that keeps a lot of Israelis up at night, for we can’t stand people who are successful. Actually, we already hated successful types 26 years ago, because, as we saw it then, successful folks were also the ones writing important things, maintaining a serious expression, speaking on behalf of the tribe or the generation.
But the way Keret wrote was different – short, absurd, with sorrow buried deep inside and not named aloud because to do so would instantly render it fake. He was funny, but the way that Holocaust jokes are funny. We liked it, though I’m not sure we understood that these were Holocaust jokes, even if we didn’t miss the horror that was in there. The horror was always there, but there was also a perspective, an understanding of the little things, a distancing from the drama. That’s still the same. In that, he hasn’t changed.
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The title of his latest Hebrew-language collection – which translates as “A Glitch at the Edge of the Galaxy” – nudges us to acknowledge that there’s a galaxy and we’re minuscule stars that are burning out in it. Any kind of serious talk, therefore, betrays a lack of awareness. We’re pathetic, small, hurting and smoking weed sometimes to help us bear this existential truth. Such are Keret’s protagonists, walking around in the world while a past or future little catastrophe lurks in the background.
Years ago I met an American writer at the International Writers Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem. We were chatting, I don’t recall about what, and I said something about Holocaust jokes. He froze and then slowly repeated my words back to me: “Ho-lo-caust jokes? Ho-lo-caust jokes?” What’s a Holocaust joke, he asked, completely stunned. And it hit me that Holocaust jokes are a dirty little secret that I’d unwittingly revealed. I declined to tell him. I come from a family in which people take their secrets to the grave.
But he was charming and eventually persuaded me to tell, and he was also Jewish so I thought it might do him good to know about his people’s rich and secret body of knowledge, and I assessed that he was old enough to enter this orchard. So I told him my favorite Holocaust joke. I was wary of what his reaction would be, but to my surprise, he roared with laughter. It sounded like a laugh that was letting go of 2,000 years of exile, and it occurred to me that maybe this is what Keret does in his work.
This kind of thing used to be done in Hebrew literature, before Zionism came and surgically removed our sense of humor. Now we’re very serious and a very threatened people. The first thing people tend to say about Keret is that he’s funny, and it’s true, but he’s funny in precisely this way, with a grim laugh in the face of horror.
When he published his first book and spoke in a language we understood, the idea was to deflate all the balloons and never blow them up again. As the years went by, he and his contemporaries were criticized for this – for not being ready to assume the portentous role of observer of the House of Israel.
But Keret didn’t give in, and despite the passage of time, all the success and the translation of his books into more than 40 languages, he still writes short stories that sometimes make the reader laugh while getting him a little choked up. It’s sort of like all those anarchist ladies and gentlemen who dare take out a cellophane-wrapped candy at the theater. The rustling of the wrapper causes the stern-faced person beside them to shift uncomfortably in his seat, as if the disturbance came from the unwrapping of a cyanide pill.
What’s in Keret’s new story collection? One thing you notice is that the stories come from somebody who’s out there in the world and no longer chained to names like Devora and Yosef. His protagonists might be called Pete-Pete and Todd, and they work in the cafeteria at Lincoln High, but sometimes they’re called Lidor or Zvi and they’re looking for an escape room to take their grandmother to on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The world is the same dark, absurd and uncompromising world where the kids and teens have become grown-ups who still don’t know how to save themselves and their children from the horror; the parents are absent. Sometimes mothers die, sometimes fathers. Keret’s world is that same world that lacks an organizing principle. Though maybe what’s changed is that now one could possibly point to a single overriding principle: the principle of orphanhood.
In the opening story, “The Second-to-Last Time I was Shot Out of a Cannon,” Esteban the human cannonball is too drunk to perform and a replacement must be found. When it’s suggested to the narrator that he take his place, he begs off, saying he has no experience. The circus manager begs to differ, pointing out that he has been shot out of a cannon before, and not just once but many times – for example, when his wife left him, or when his son called him a loser and said he never wanted to see him again.
The way Keret wrote was different – short, absurd, with sorrow buried deep inside and not named aloud because to do so would instantly render it fake
In the next story – “Don’t Do It!” – a father and son notice a man standing on a rooftop and getting ready to jump, but each of them perceives the situation differently. The father wants to save the man while the son shouts encouragement, not yet aware of the possibility that someone could take his own life. He yells to the man to jump because he wants to see him fly – it’s not every day that you get to meet a real superhero.
In the story “Todd,” Todd asks his writer friend to write a story that will help him get girls to go to bed with him. The writer explains what a story is: “A story is not a magical incantation or hypnotherapy, a story is essentially a way to share with people something that you feel, something intimate, sometimes it’s even embarrassing that” – here the friend cuts him off. A story is just a story, Keret is telling us, still committed not to inflate any balloons.
In many of the stories, the father or mother is missing, having either run away or died or run away and died. Sometimes they’re just divorced, with wrecked families, single-parent families, orphaned children. In “Car Concentrate,” a 46-year-old man keeps a piece of compressed metal in his living room. It was once part of his father’s Mustang that got mixed up in a deadly accident. Sometimes the kids in Keret’s stories are small, and sometimes they’re 46-year-olds.
“What does your daughter do?,” the mother in “Crumb Cake” asks Charlie in Charlie’s Diner. The woman is there with her son to celebrate her 50th birthday. Charlie is impressed that, at his age, the son still wants to go out with his mother for her birthday. In answering her question, he says he doesn’t know exactly, something high-tech. And the mother replies: “My son is fat and unemployed, so don’t be too quick to be jealous.”
In “Rabbit on My Father’s Side,” fathers leave home and return to their young children in the form of real white rabbits that can be petted behind the ear. And there are also stories about clones. In “Tabula Rasa,” Hitler is cloned so that a Holocaust survivor can kill him. Hitler doesn’t know that he’s a clone or that he’s Hitler. He is raised in harsh conditions, in captivity, and dreams of the day when he’ll be free. Does killing a clone count as murder? And what about murdering a Hitler who doesn’t know that he’s Hitler and has yet to harm anyone?
In “Yad Vashem,” a clear glass divider separates an exhibit about European Jewry before the Nazis came to power and one about Kristallnacht. A tourist named Eugene accidentally bumps into it. Blood drips from his nose as he views the exhibit with his wife Rachel. They’re going through a hard time, but not because of the Holocaust.
Interspersed with the stories is correspondence about the use of an escape room called “A Glitch at the Edge of the Galaxy” that a man named Michael Warshavsky wants to bring his mother to on Holocaust Remembrance Day. He’s informed in a letter from the place’s manager that the escape room is closed that day.
Undeterred, Warshavsky writes back that he’s trying “to find an appropriate activity for this sad and awful day,” adding that “the escape room has to do with the heavenly bodies, and, to the best of my knowledge, these did not deviate from their orbits even as 6 million Jews were sent to their deaths.” Which may have been why I thought about Holocaust jokes, and the joke I told to that American writer: A Jew arrives at the concentration camp and in the selection the Nazi orders him to go to the left, so the Jew asks – my left or yours?
A shattered culture
It will be interesting to see how Keret is perceived today by young readers, the ones for whom career isn’t a dirty word; for those who can afford it, a yuppie’s SUV is the natural choice. Keret still writes about people outside the bourgeois circle, about people whose lives have shot them out of a cannon. He doesn’t write beautifully, he’s not making love to the language, he doesn’t know what’s right and what’s good and how it’s supposed to be. Despite all his success, he remains faithful to his generation and in this sense he hasn’t changed; some would say that he hasn’t grown up – compared to the rest of us who’ve betrayed all we used to be and can now be found spouting gibberish on Facebook and at Botox parties.
Keret doesn’t preach, he doesn’t judge, he just tells a story. Some people might think this is just more of the same, but what’s this thing that’s the same and has it really not changed? Keret has the ability to see things both from a bird’s-eye view and from the vantage point of the refrigerator. He knows what’s in the single guy’s fridge and the married couple’s fridge. He also knows what’s in the war’s fridge, the family’s fridge, the parents’ fridge and the orphan’s fridge. He knows the farewell fridge and the compromise fridge.
Maybe a story is just a story, but a story is also a cunning act, certainly when it comes to Keret. It seems to me that since his first books, the laughter has changed and sometimes vanished completely. The story that concludes the collection, “The Evolution of Separation,” describes a cell that becomes a pepper that becomes a fish that becomes a lizard that becomes a creature that walks upright that becomes a loving couple laughing and watching television together. And then their parents die and they have a child who grows up and goes off to college and they’re left alone and grow nasty to each other and cheat on each other and find replacements for each other. And then they break down and crash, and the man notices that he’s speaking in the plural when he’s all alone.
Here we have a story that’s not just about the evolution of separation between people, but also a depiction of the evolution of a culture still crushed and trampled on, and here Keret offers no words of comfort or the merest hint of a joke. And that’s what has changed.