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Saying Big Things: The Art of Etgar Keret

By Todd Hasak Lowy

In the latest dispatch for our Etgar Keret discussion, Todd Hasak-Lowy, author of Captives and The Task of this Translator, talks about Keret and the art of saying big things —Editors

Etgar Keret says very big things about very small worlds. There is an irony in this, because to say big things, big and true things, one must be a genius of some sort. Especially if these big and true things are at once both strangely original and artfully rendered. Keret says things in this way. The irony, such as it is, stems from his decision, or tendency, to couch the big within the small, to assign his particular genius or vision to the startling illumination of compact worlds. There's also a melancholy to these worlds, though at the moment it's hard to know if this is ironic or not: to masterfully render small, compact worlds as small, compact, and sad, too. I suppose we could blame his country and its history, or his people and its history for this last tendency. That's much too big a topic for just now, but it should be kept in mind.

Anyhow, just one example of the big in the small, taken from a favorite of mine, "Hole in the Wall" [The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God]. In this story, Keret offers a world in which the impossible and supernatural coexist—a word which should give us pause in the context of Israeli fiction—only this combination ultimately leads to a lesser, darker reality. This is a powerful double move, the irony involved is particularly unexpected in comparison even to most other ironic moves in fiction. In "Hole in the Wall," Keret opens with the following: there is a hole, and according to rumor, if you yell a wish into it, the hole will fulfill your wish. A skeptical guy named Udi yells into this hole, asks for an angel friend, and soon a man with wings enters Udi's life. But the man isn't a good friend, and when Udi accidentally kills him in the end (violence is nearly everywhere in Keret's worlds, but that's for another time), he discovers that the man can't even fly: "He wasn't an angel, just a liar with wings." So the story ends, by which point we've learned, among other things, that (a) the wall has not fulfilled Udi's wish, or, at best, has sent him an alarmingly defective version of what he requested, (b) there are, regardless, beings with wings, (c) there are beings with wings who, for some reason, can't fly. What is a reader supposed to do with an impossible reality of this sort? And why does this absurd combination of the mundane and the supernatural strike us as anything but nonsensical?

Readers less sympathetic to Keret's fiction, could, I suppose, dismiss the gestures at the center of "Hole in the Wall"—and he has many more stories in The Girl on the Fridge like this in some general way—as gimmicks or tricks. And, I imagine, one could think up similarly odd combinations of the magical and the mundane. Though even this is much harder than it looks. It must be. Because Keret's Hebrew is so astoundingly simple, on the level of diction, that if he weren't doing something profoundly inventive there would be 100 other writers doing the same thing by now. I'm sure many more than that have tried.


Keret achieves something singular in his best stories. He strikes some strange, nearly beautiful note, or more accurately some similarly unforgettable chord, on this small and loud instrument he crafted—go figure—out of the same materials made famous by Amos Oz, S. Y. Agnon, H. N. Bialik, Ibn Gvirol, and whoever authored the Hebrew Bible. Keret's best pieces amaze us, but in such a way that the short, short story is over and its narrator gone away before it's occurred to us ask what would have happened if Mozart had only written pieces of twelve measures or less. Would we have learned to celebrate him, or would we have continued to demand a full-length symphony each and every time he came to play?

Todd Hasak-Lowy is an assistant professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University of Florida. His collection, The Task of This Translator (Harvest Books, 2005), received praise for its "explosive originality" from the New York Times, and his debut novel, Captives (Spiegel and Grau, 2008), was hailed by Darrin Strauss as "brilliantly funny."


Links to other posts in this series:

Adam Rovner puts Etgar Keret in context.


Miriam Shlesinger talks about translating Keret.

Phillip Lopate discusses the roots of Keret's work.


Adam Rovner on Reading Keret: Front Line of the Hyper-real.

Nicolle Elizabeth reports on our Keret event at the Idlewild bookstore.

Photos from the event.


Adam Rovner interviews Etgar Keret

The video from the Idlewild Event

Adam Rovner talks about "An Exclusive"

My Favorite Keret Story, from Bud Parr


Translating the Funhouse: Adam Rovner on Reading Keret

Moshe Ron and Hannan Hever discuss finding Etgar Keret.


Resources for further reading (and viewing) on Etgar Keret.

Published Mar 21, 2009   Copyright 2009 Todd Hasak Lowy

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