Etgar Keret's works are the most-stolen volumes from Israel's bookshops, something the author puts down to having an avid, young and cash-strapped audience. Logically, perhaps, he is also the most widely-read author in the country's jails.
Part of the appeal no doubt rests in the brevity of Keret's surreal snapshots of Israel's intifadeh generations ("Just enough to read between leaving your cell and getting stopped in the showers," is how he puts it). There is also the way that his very short stories there are 46 in Missing Kissinger, in just 211 pages lend themselves to lengthy bouts of reflection.
By turns violent and moving, the book includes tales of a hapless jobbing magician who can't help conjuring up severed rabbits' heads at birthday parties, a dithering hard-boiled hit man, and the goddess Venus working as an office temp. Thrown into the mix alongside a clutch of tragically distant fathers is a string of treacherous girlfriends one of whom demands her beau deliver her the heart of his mother, to prove his love.
But Keret's real subjects are Israel's teenage soldiers turned unsettled couch potatoes, the 20-something slacker veterans who live in the twin shadows of the Holocaust and their state's martial heritage. For all his imaginative pyrotechnics, Keret's aim is engage his reader with the everyday oddness of Israel. "I would call it subjective realism," he says of his bizarre storylines. "I am trying to show things the way they feel." Overwhelmingly, in Keret's fiction, things feel edgy. Throughout Missing Kissinger, there is the sense of the dark slap-shtick of a country where, through dumb luck, a coffee in the wrong café could spell death by suicide bomber.
If he has a literary model, Keret explains from his home in Tel Aviv, it is Franz Kafka. "Kafka tries to reach his moral goal by disorientating the reader," he says. "A short story in this style is like a slap in the face." If Kafka offers a slap, Keret's stories are more like a rifle-butt blow to the jaw. In one tale, the protagonist spots a woman walking down the street and sees, a second later, "the tip of a knife sticking out of the front of her neck."
His quick-fix fiction has won Keret plaudits and fame. Missing Kissinger, his breakthrough book, came out in 1994 (published in the U.K. and the U.S. this March, most of the stories here appear for the first time in English). It was chosen as one of the 50 most important works in Hebrew by the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, and is on the Israeli high school syllabus. Keret now pens caustic satirical sketches for Israeli TV, has published a series of comic books and won Israel's equivalent of a Best Picture Oscar for Skin Deep, a movie he co-directed. He also dabbles in punditry: last summer, he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that suggested the Israeli public found last summer's war against Lebanon comforting, as it removed the moral ambiguities inherent in the country's conflict with the Palestinians.
But his political stance more accurately, the absence of an explicit ideology in his fiction has led to clashes with Israel's literary grandees. "I'm a very political writer," he says. "But my idea of politics is different from the previous generation's. When people say that I am not political, they mean that my stories don't have a political bottom line."
In those terms, the naysayers are right. Missing Kissinger doesn't point readers left or right. Rather, the human fallout of the Knesset's political posturing is an incessant background hum. In a way that sneaks up on them, several of the book's characters have their lives eaten away by their army experiences. The deadbeat heroes elicit a dead-pan wit. "He had no future," Keret writes of one of his leading men. "He didn't even have a near present."
"You don't always know it, but lines that you don't pass, you pass them all the time in Israel," Keret explains. "When you're 18, you're taken into the army, you kick doors down, you beat people, shoot people. Then you go home and people say now you are going to lead a normal life. But the moment your girlfriend doesn't want to open the door, well, it's not like you've never been in that situation before."
Above all, perhaps, Keret wants to show how complex life gets. He should know: he was born in 1967, the year of the Six Day War, to two Holocaust survivors. His sister is an ultra-orthodox former settler, whose beliefs forbid her to read his work. His brother is the founder of Israel's movement for the legalization of marijuana and a member of the super-left-wing Anarchists Against the World.
Then there are the surreal kinks in Keret's career. Izzat al-Ghazzawi, a Palestinian writer who died in 2003, refused to sit on the same panel as him at an event in Norway, drawing in the process an attack from French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Later, however, Izzat translated Keret's The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, another collection of short stories, into Arabic for the first time.
How well that version did is hard to pin down. Strong sales were reported, but Keret's publishers suspect that Hamas bought the books and burned them, lest ordinary Palestinians read them. That scenario sounds like the perfect beginning to a Keret short story. But given the insight into young Israel's collective psyche that Keret offers up, if the tale is true, it would be a tragedy in itself.