Etgar Keret’s Hebrew name translates as “Urban Challenge.” Keret himself has said the name better suits a sneaker model than a young man going through mandatory military service, but it seems fitting in light of his most recent book of short stories, The Nimrod Flipout, which effectively communicates the violence and complexity of contemporary Israel with humor and a touch of the absurd.
What is striking about the thirty brief stories in The Nimrod Flipout (thirteen of them less than four pages long) is that Keret’s vision is both universal and utterly bizarre. When a child takes drastic measures to forestall the steady shrinkage of his parents in “Pride and Joy,” what seems surreal yet believable is the measure of the characters’ devotion, not their eight-inch height. In “Bottle,” a man matter-of-factly puts people into bottles, an ultimately beneficent skill that speaks to our collective fear of darkness and solitude. In “Horsie,” a young woman gives birth to a baby who is adored despite being, well… let’s just say odd.
“We want to fight for the ability to be normal,” Keret said of Israeli writers of his generation in a recent NPR interview. “We want to fight for the ability to talk about what’s private. To talk about emotions… and not our emotions in the national context.” And emotions he certainly depicts: understated, genuine emotions.
Though clichés abound, and Keret sometimes offers images or develops premises that seem more juvenile than clever, his story-telling can fascinate. Particularly effective is the eponymous tale whose uncharacteristic length (fifteen pages) allows Keret to develop a group of close friends more fully than in his shorter pieces.
Keret’s prose—colloquial, punchy, and unadorned—often establishes an easy intimacy with the reader. The collection’s first story, “Fatso,” begins, “Surprised? Of course I was surprised.” Keret primes the reader for the unexpected while challenging conceptions of normalcy.
“Dirt” opens with “So let’s say I’m dead now, or I open a self-service laundromat, the first one in Israel.”
Keret’s voice is undeniably Israeli.All the stories in Nimrod are set in Israel (except one in Florida and one on the moon), making the parks, restaurants, and apartments of Tel Aviv seem right around the corner. The language is meant to be equally familiar, though translation—he has been translated into sixteen languages— can flatten the multivalent complexity of Keret’s original Hebrew. Given a sociohistorical context in which Hebrew interweaves and clashes with Arabic, Keret’s original prose is peppered with borrowed and inflected verbiage, far more accurately reflecting tensions that my English copy renders invisible.
Loss of lexical nuance, though, was not my main translational distraction when reading Keret’s first short- story collection, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God (2004). Five different translators worked on that collection, one using “harebrained” while another used “stoked,” one using “cunt” while another used “make love,” these differing registers creating the impression of an internal generation gap. For a few reasons, how- ever, such inconsistency is less apparent in Nimrod. First, the collection is translated only by Sondra Silverston and Miriam Schlesinger, the most skilled translator from Bus Driver.The other explanation is perhaps more compelling: Etgar Keret just might be a better writer than he was a book ago.