Chapati Review: Four Books by Etgar Keret

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The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God & Other Stories (Toby Press, 2004), $12.95.
Jetlag (Toby Press, 2006), $12.95.
The Nimrod Flipout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), $12.00.
Pizzeria Kamikaze (Alternative Comics, 2006), $14.95.

Pizzeria KamikazeIt’s one of those days when you find yourself in a new part of town with an hour to kill, and you decide you to sit in a cafe with a book, but you don’t have a book with you, so you walk around browsing in a few bookstores, looking for something you could actually sit and read in public, and to your surprise, you actually find something stunning that you have never heard of, and, frankly never even fantasized about. You notice the book because its cover is well-designed and when you flip through it, there is a lot of shiny silver. Since it’s a graphic novel, you can tell whether it’s good from its cover, because if you don’t like the layout, design and artwork, what’s the point of reading it, really? And this is an Israeli graphic novel, and that’s the part of the whole thing that you had never even fantasized about, besides, of course, all the shiny silver parts. You purchase the book and walk to a cafe, more quickly than you ought to when you are killing time, and sitting on a stool at a shiny silver bar, you order a solitary piece of raw fish, a glass of something cold and proceed to delve into Pizzeria Kamikaze, hoping you will not be terribly disappointed.

A few pages in, you find your expectations vindicated by an unbeatable premise:

Two days after I killed myself, I found a job at some pizza joint called ‘Kamikaze.’

The following sentences seal the deal:

…whenever they used to talk about life after death and go through the is-there-isn’t-there routine. I’d always imagine these beeping sounds, and people floating around in space and stuff. But now that I’m here, it reminds me of Tel Aviv. My German roommate says this place could just as well be Frankfurt. I guess Frankfurt’s a dump too.

Thus begins a story about an afterlife reserved for suicides, where everyone is just as banal as before, and the town is a real dump kind of like Tel Aviv or Frankfurt, and everything is just about the same except that everyone has a tell-tale scar that betrays their method of suicide, except, of course for the people who died from poison. These people are called the Juliets and they are usually smokin’ hot.

Etgar KeretI won’t give away the rest of the story, which does become rather surreal (as any story about the after-life ought to), without ever losing its purchase on mundanity, as described by the desultory tone of the first person narrator and the abundance of hip slang that is thrown about by the depressive and bored characters. I was sufficiently intrigued by Pizzeria Kamikaze that I looked up the author, Etgar Keret, and discovered that he was not, in fact, a graphic novelist or cartoonist, but a short story writer with quite a few publications. Pizzeria Kamikaze is based on a novella called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” that is published in English in Keret’s collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, and is not the only collaboration he has done in the graphic novel line. The volume Jetlag was published in 2006 and represents a collaboration between Keret and five different Israeli artists in which five of his short stories from various collections have been illustrated to varying degrees of success. The artist for Pizzeria Kamikaze seems to actually be a cartoonist, whereas the others appear to actually be artists or illustrators and many of the drawings resemble woodcuts, although it is not clear what media were used. Some of them are quite interesting but I’m not entirely sure what the point is.

JetlagKeret’s short stories are hilariously funny but the graphic novels seem to take some of the fun out of them and distract from the style. I am not convinced that everything needs to be turned into a comic book, and am more inclined to believe that cartoons and graphic novels tend to start with imagery as the basis for their story-telling strategies and use words as supplements. Obviously there is no rule for this, but my point is that the visual images in cartoons tend not to be used as illustrations of ideas constructed through words; instead the words are generally used as supplements to the ideas put forth by the images. Illustrations on the other hand, are servants to the verbal text, and faithfully portray the ideas that originate in the words. This little theory is all in the way of saying that while the drawings are quite well done in the second volume, there is a bit of a parallel text feeling at work, where one feels like the writer and the artists are most definitely not the same people and they are not collaborators in the classic sense of comic book production. The drawings are like illustrations, but much of the text has been cut out, leaving the stories bereft of their style, and slightly inconvenienced by the strong colorful images. Pizzeria Kamikaze, on the other hand, has been worked over in a much smoother, comic book style, perhaps because the artist (Asaf Hanuka) is a cartoonist, and thus the adaptation goes down easier, or maybe it’s all the silver.

[As an aside, Amazon customer review fans should not miss out on this gem-like set of observations by Kevin Killian of San Francisco on the topic of Jetlag (if you are not a fan of customer reviews, feel free to just skip ahead):

Etgar Keret, you’re the most promising fortyish writer in Israel and you just love working in comics too. Your skills at farce and a Charles Schultz wistful sadsackness give your stories a lovesick, hovering, numinous quality like dark clouds over a child’s tea party. In JETLAG FIVE GRAPHIC NOVELLAS you really take the word “novellas” and give it a new meaning, that is, you make it mean something brief and haiku like, when in ordinary English I expect it to mean something long. Comics have their own Orwellian newspeak but to dignify these sketches with the name of novellas would have Henry James, not to mention Isaac Balshevis Singer, rolling in their graves.

Etgar Keret, youe (sic) collaborators on JETLAG all belong to a collective called ACTUS, but their drawing styles could not be any different. Rutu Modan, who illustrates the final “novella,” has a classic European clarity and the last panel, of your hero alone with his pet monkey on a seaside amusement pier, is like a panel from some lost Tintin adventure by Herge. Itzik Rennert, on the other hand, dazzles things up with a George Grosz meets Basquiat (or John Bankston) satiric crudeness of gesture and line: big thick sharpie strokes and a pornographic river of debauchery. As an Anerican boy growing up in France I used to try to imitate the line drawings in the books of erotica I found on the top shelves of my elderly professor’s directoire, and if I had had three hands I might have been able to come up with something like this. Mira Friedmann is working the ominous shadows overmuch (granted when the story if called “Passage to Hell” that’s a mighty big temptation) and one of your other Actus people can’t really draw at all, might it be one of your relations trying to break into the big time on your dime?

I enjoyed the book but found it trifling compared to your other current projects. You don’t have a really big imagination, do you, Etgar Keret? Sounds like the same thing over and over again. Folktales with an edge.]

The Nimrod FlipoutAfter finishing the graphic novels I ended up reading your two volumes of short that have been translated into English, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and The Nimrod Flipout, and was at times truly entranced and nearly convinced that the short story was a worthwhile genre after all. At your best, Etgar Keret, you remind me of Saki, with maybe a touch of Gogol and Manto (but not in a derivative fashion!). Most of your humor is deadpan, and in stories like “Breaking the Pig”, you manage to make me feel absolutely heartbroken in about 2 pages over the relationship of a little boy with his piggy bank, the touchingly named Margolis. Most of the stories are very very short, which is what kept reminding me of the genre of extremely short stories in Urdu and Hindi. Everyone seems so set on producing writing of a standardized length nowadays that is very refreshing and startling to see a contemporary writer embarking on experimentation with length.

[As another aside (make sure to skip this part if you are bored by literary criticism and Subaltern Studies volumes– I know I am): On the other hand, maybe Hebrew short stories are typically very short, how should I know? Don’t want to make the mistake that Aamir Mufti did in the dreadfully under-edited Subaltern Studies Vol. XI, where he based his entire thesis on the notion that the short and very short stories of Manto and those of Urdu writers in general stood for the curtailed status of the Muslim in South Asia, a thesis which neglects the fact that most literatures in Indian languages privilege the short story over the novel. As Mufti states confidently:

Aamir Mufti

Urdu is in fact unique among the major literatures of South Asia in the emphasis it places on the short-story as the primary genre of narrative fiction, even over the decades after Partition. In Urdu, the more common hierarchical relationship of the novel to the short-story is reversed….The absence of a canonical novel form in Urdu is a historico-philosophical fact of great significance and is an inscription, at the level of literary form and institution, of the dialectic of selfhood in Indian modernity.

Whoops…wrong! But definitely an ‘A’ for jazzy rhetoric and self-confidence.]

The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be GodOn the whole, the stories in The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God are more funny and dry, and the ones in The Nimrod Flipout are a bit more angry, so one should turn one’s attention to the stories that best fit one’s mood. The Nimrod Flipout is also much better translated. Bus Driver, at least in the edition I read, which has been succeeded by a more main-stream American edition, seems at times to make a hash of what, one assumes, is the hippest and nowest of slang used by Keret in many of his stories. This problem seems to have been perpetrated primarily by one translator who thankfully did not translate all the stories. I found myself flipping through the book and reading only the ones she hadn’t translated first, so as to avoid the sometimes exceedingly jarring phrases she came up with, like in this little passage from “Kneller’s Happy Campers”:

I met Uzi Gelfland at Stiff Drinks, almost by accident. He acted real friendly. Bought me a beer and everything, which weirded me out ’cause I figured he might be trying to stick it to me or something. But pretty soon I saw he wasn’t on to me at all, just bored.

Maybe ‘stick it to me’ and ‘on to me’ are slang for ‘hitting on me’ and ‘after me’ in some other English speaking community outside the US of A, but over here the meanings are different, and judging from the rest of the translation, I’m pretty sure they were going for the whole American slang thing.

Wristcutters: A Love StoryFinally, a few bits of interesting trivia: “Kneller’s Happy Campers”, AKA Pizzeria Kamikaze, has been made into a film that has won all sorts of awards and is due out on August 31, 2007 in the US, called Wristcutters: A Love Story with a cast that includes Tom Waits (whom we haven’t seen on the big screen outside of Jim Jarmusch movies) and Will Arnett (GOB Bluth from Arrested Development) as the Messiah. How cool is that? Also, a great interview with Keret by The Believer here.

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