Israeli author Etgar Keret jokes that he needs one of those changing signboards outside his home to count the number of films that have been made based on his writings. The 50 mark was recently passed when the filming of a clay-animation movie based on his story For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage) – which includes voiceovers by Geoffrey Rush – got underway this month.
“It’s a great compliment to see my works in film,” says Keret, one of Israel’s leading voices in literature and cinema. North Americans can now see the movie Wristcutters: A Love Story – which was adapted from Keret’s bestselling novella, Kneller’s Happy Campers – at cinemas throughout the US and Canada.
Wristcutters, which was nominated at the Sundance Film Festival, will be screened this month at the Chicago International Film Festival, the Festival of New Cinema in Montreal, and at the Milwaukee International Film Festival.
Keret has a huge following in his native Israel as well as around the world. The 39-year-old has authored four short story collections in Hebrew, two in English, two children’s books, a handful of novellas, graphic novels, screenplays, and collaborated anthologies. His works have been translated into more than 20 languages. He has won Israel’s Prime Minister’s Award for Literature and the Israeli equivalent of an Oscar for a film he helped write and direct.
To mark the new English translation of his short stories collection, The Nimrod Flipout by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Keret recently held a reading in Tel Aviv. While he assumed that no more than a dozen people would show up to an English-speaking event in a Hebrew speaking country, more than 80 people crammed into a local bookstore to hear him talk about his books.
His readers have “turned him into one of their heroes, a cult author, but it wasn’t his choice. He claims to represent no-one,” Dov Alfon, editor-in-chief of Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishers in Israel, told ISRAEL21c.
Indeed, for a guy who can most often be seen dressed casually in baggy pants and a T-shirt, and who sports a gap between his front teeth, Keret does not seem like a person who would inspire a huge following. He says he never imagined himself as a famous author, and still has trouble identifying himself as such.
Keret’s output is very different from that of model writers such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B. Yehoshua who write about ideology, politics, the Holocaust, and Jewish history. While those writers are renowned for their extensive prose, Keret’s stories are concise and usually run three pages in length.
Moreover, Keret explores themes of identity, love, and urban alienation through strange, snappy chronicles of contemporary Israel.
“[Keret]’s stories deal with the minutiae of Israeli society; with snapshots of reality and thus he seeks to pass comment on the larger issues. His stories resonate with the authenticity of the everyday life of ordinary people,” says Alfon.
Keret’s stories are short, funny, sad, and thought provoking. In The Nimrod Flipout collection, from the opening story, ‘Fatso’, through to the last tale, ‘Himme’, the reader will find clever and fresh perceptions on sex, adolescence, family, romantic relationships, and friendships.
His tales also often revolve around death and suicide – which he writes about in a matter-of-fact style. The title story of his collection was motivated by the suicide of his best friend while they were in the army together. The story is not morose but rather about feeling out of place within society.
Characters in his stories are a motley, eccentric crew of nobodies who usually take ridiculous measures to deal with the traumas of daily life. They are the weaker members of society who feel out of place with their surroundings.
The amiable Keret says he is inspired and influenced by life itself and the people in his life. He is married to actress/author Shira Gefen with whom he has a son. His parents are Holocaust survivors, his brother lives in a tree house in Thailand, and his sister returned to the ultra-orthodox fold of Judaism and has 11 children.
Many of the stories in The Nimrod Flipout collection take place indoors or in confined spaces. Keret says this is not just a coincidence. He says that what’s happening in Israel and the region affects his writing.
“It had to do with writing the stories during the second intifada, when people didn’t go to coffee places or didn’t go out a lot. So when there’s something happening in Israel it has an indirect effect on my writing. I never write about the political situation but rather how it affects me,” Keret tells ISRAEL21c.
Keret, who teaches creative writing at Ben-Gurion University, excels in his ability to seem straightforward and casual, but as the stories progress shows that his writing is packed with witticisms and sharp commentary.
While he says the stories are Israeli, he also stresses that “many of the problems in Israel are not unique regional problems. They’re widespread human problems that in Israel are in a sense more extreme. The Middle East didn’t invent violence. A lot of people think that if there was peace in this region, there would be peace around the globe. I don’t hold this view. I feel that those who highlight the Middle East as a problem are actually talking about their own problems. We have our problems with the Hizbullah; the international community has its troubles with other terror groups.”
His stories are allegories or metaphors. And while Keret offers accounts of life’s quirks in Israel, the international audience will find it easy to identify with his works.
According to Lorin Stein, an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, his stories are obviously not written from an American perspective.
“At the same time, most of them take the form of either confessions or fairytales – you can always feel the presence of a warm, human storyteller. So even if an American reader may not feel spoken ‘for’, he or she feels spoken ‘to’,” he says.
“We are much more alike than we think,” says Keret. “In my story, “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God”, it doesn’t matter that I wrote it while picturing a Tel Aviv bus driver on Allenby Street. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re in Chicago or Austin or Toronto everyone recognizes the bus driver and can identify with him.”
Literary events in which Keret has taken part in North America over the years have proven he has admirers outside of Israel. Keret has given readings in Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, and Montreal, among other locations. In April 2007 he will tour the West Coast in support of The Nimrod Flipout.
“Etgar’s readings drew a lot of people which is rare for a collection,” notes Stein, adding that the book was very widely reviewed, “especially for a story collection, to say nothing of a collection in translation.”
Two of Israel’s top Hebrew to English translators, Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston, were employed to convert Keret’s stories into English.
“[Keret] takes an enormous amount of care and trouble over the English language translations of his work. He works with two translators… It’s a slow process but I think the results speak for themselves. There are no puns, no language tricks in his books; he deals with the human condition via stories, not with language,” concludes Alfon, of Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan Dvir publishers in Israel. “It is certainly not a coincidence if he is the most widely-translated Israeli author.”