A Bard For Uncertain Times


The cover illustration of Etgar Keret’s first book in English shows a smiley-faced figure in the act of blowing its brains out. Inside, suicide, murder and other forms of mutilation are featured in a good portion of the "other stories" in "The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories."

Far from turning off readers, Keret’s combination of bittersweet prose and morose subject matter has hit a nerve among Israelis born in an age of political and moral uncertainty.

In one story, the protagonist pushes an angel off the roof to see if he can fly. He can’t. "For me, life is like that angel," Keret, 35, says by phone from Tel Aviv, where he lectures in film studies at Tel Aviv University.

"Potentially, we can fly to heaven. Practically, we find ourselves with our ribs broken."

Hailed as "Israel’s hippest young writer" and an Amos Oz for a new generation, Keret has turned out a nonstop stream of bestsellers, along with an award-winning television drama, "Skin Deep," about a tattoo and a failed romance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, including Chinese and Hindu. His latest book, "Anihu," is slated for English translation so far in Australia.

In this country, Keret has been compared to sardonic social observers like J.D. Salinger and Dave Eggers.

New York readers can draw their own conclusions when Keret comes to the JCC in Manhattan on Tuesday.

The son of Holocaust survivors – whose older siblings grew up to be a fervently Orthodox mother of 10 and the head of the movement to legalize marijuana – Keret describes his childhood in Ramat Gan as having "this kind of circus feeling."

"I started writing from a feeling that I was a freak of some sort," he said. His books’ success has strengthened his confidence that many others share his seemingly warped outlook.

"I’m the most popular writer for prisoners in jail, for example," Keret said. "That means I have a very rich audience. And also, statistically, mine is one of the most stolen books from bookstores. I don’t know if I have the most Orthodox readership."

Clearly. Keret gets fan mail from Jewish settlements as well as Arab villages, but even his least popular book racked up 40,000 sales in a country of 5 million Hebrew readers, he said.

Despite criticism for lack of depth in his very short, short fiction, Keret he sees his writing as an expression of protest.

"It’s not as if we live in a great utopia where we can be very cool about everything," said the writer, who also pens contemplative newspaper commentaries on the Mideast situation. "If you think life can be better, that people can better, either it can make you cry, or you go into the street with a big stick."

"Etgar Keret in Conversation" takes place at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave., Manhattan, (646) 505-5708. Tues., Jan. 28, 8-10 p.m. $12, $8.