Israel’s Hippest Voice Speaks Out

By AMIT R. PALEY

CRIMSON STAFF WRITEr

“When I started writing I thought I was really, really fucked up,” Etgar Keret told me in between sips of his Earl Grey tea one Monday afternoon in November. “But so many people identify with my stories that I understood that all of us are really, really fucked up.”

The 34-year-old Israeli author, considered to be one of his country’s trendiest and most popular writers, doesn’t reject the eccentric—he embraces it. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, the first collection of his works translated into English, includes the mesmerizing tale of a beautiful uterus set free in the ocean by environmental terrorists, an angel who turns out to be just a liar with wings and a boy who names his piggy bank Margolis and loves it more than his parents.

Americans finally have a chance to find out just how fucked up they are.

When Keret began writing, his psyche was certainly not in a healthy place. To be more precise, it was in a basement five floors underground, working completely alone for 48-hour shifts on a job the Israeli Army code-named Quasimodo.

After several court martials for insubordination and insulting an officer (“my parents brought me up to ask questions and to judge things morally, and in the army that gets you into trouble,” Keret explains), he was assigned to monitor a machine in the military purgatory. This at an age when most American students aren’t monitoring anything more complicated than a keg stand.

“My job was supposed to be if the computer broke I was supposed to fix it, and in all the three years that I worked there it broke only once and I couldn’t fix it,” he joked as we chatted on the second floor of Cafe Algiers. “So, I wasn’t very helpful to the army.”

As the isolation took its toll, Keret began talking to himself and, eventually, putting pen to paper. He describes the original drafts as “kind of half-a-letter, half-a-memoir, half-I don’t know.” He continued writing them, because everybody said it was good for him, but he said he knew that no one was interested in his work.

“Everybody said, ‘They are not stories and, whatever they are, they’re not very good,’” Keret explained as he poked at his mostly uneaten slice of pecan pie (“it doesn’t taste very good,” he said softly so as not to offend the waitress, whom we still tipped generously).

It’s not terribly hard to absolve those early readers for not recognizing that the self-described “terrible soldier” would go on to become a celebrated Israeli author, screenwriter and director. His sometimes fantastical and always off-beat writings differ markedly from earlier, canonical Israeli authors.

“In Israeli literature, the characters are always heroic and sure and responsible and moral—they are always better than me,” Keret said. But in his stories, there is ambiguity and uncertainty. Especially when it comes to love.

“Crazy Glue,” one of Keret’s most hauntingly beautiful tales, which is unforgivably omitted from this collection, begins with an adulterous husband who asks his wife why she bought special glue. “‘For the same reason I married you,’ she murmured. ‘To help pass the time.’” When he returns from work that evening, he can’t move a chair to sit in, open the door of the refrigerator, or lift the phone receiver to call the police. And then, he hears his wife, hanging upside down from the ceiling, laughing. He makes a stack of books to climb on and get his wife down, when he realizes:

She was so pretty, and so incongruous, hanging upside-down from the ceiling that way. With her long hair dangling downwards, and her breasts molded like two perfect teardrops under her white T-shirt. So pretty. I climbed back up onto the pile of books and kissed her. I felt her tongue on mine. The books tumbled out from under my feet, but I stayed floating in midair, hanging just from her lips.

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