Israel's Hot New Fiction: The Nimrod Flipout

Sunday, June 25, 2006



By Etgar Keret

Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston

Farrar Straus Giroux. 167 pp. Paperback, $12

The Israeli author Etgar Keret writes short stories, some of which are very, very short and nearly all of which are very, very substantial. It's an achievement of economy that begins with his rousing opening sentences:

"Surprised? Of course I was surprised."

"So let's say I'm dead now."

"This is a story about people who once lived on the moon. Nowadays, there's no one up there, but up until just a few years ago, the place was mobbed."

Keret -- whose latest collection, The Nimrod Flipout (Farrar Straus Giroux; paperback, $12), has just been published in a brisk English translation by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston -- is a master at enticing the reader with a quick bite that miraculously sates for days. As Israel's most acclaimed young writer, the 39-year-old novelist, short story crafter and screenwriter has conspicuously diverged from the pioneers-and-politics narrative central to his country's (admittedly young) literary canon, choosing instead to tell stories of love, loss and everyday neuroses.

But to call Keret apolitical would be to miss a seminal moment in the history of Jewish literature. Indeed, it would be like pigeonholing Isaac Bashevis Singer -- at whose knee Keret seems to have learned the art of magic realism, only to use it with more discipline than his master. There is fantasy in nearly every story in this collection -- parents who shrink as their son grows; a tryst told from the perspective of everyone in the room, including the cat ("I think I'll meow now") -- but the sharpest seasoning here is wit. In "Fatso," we are regaled with the tale of a man whose girlfriend morphs nightly into a short, hairy man, with surprising consequences for the relationship. "When you first met him, you didn't give a damn about soccer, but now you know every team. And whenever one of your favorites wins, you feel like you've made a wish and it's come true. . . . And so it goes: every night you fall asleep with him struggling to stay awake for the Argentinean finals, and in the morning there she is, the beautiful, forgiving woman who you love, too, till it hurts."

Keret is a cynic who can't manage to shake off his hopefulness -- the most reliable kind of narrator there is. His true ancestor may not be Singer but Woody Allen, who, in his earlier years, summoned the gods of fantasy to help argue his most famous philosophical insights. And Keret is exhibiting "Annie Hall"-era talent here, churning out gem after gem. "This is one story you've got to hear!" reads another of his attention-grabbing openers. Indeed it is. ?

Alana Newhouse is the arts and culture editor at the Forward.

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