Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Keret's Handbook for Success in Death

Etgar Keret's collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories is a delightful assortment of experimental vignettes that resonate deeply on a number of levels. Overtly, the pieces are blackly hilarious, sinister in the disturbing scenes we are asked to imagine, audacious in that we must suspend disbelief at all costs and put trust in twisted narrators who force us to navigate the darkness of the human psyche. When taken in kind with the novella that appears at the end of the collection, "Kneller's Happy Campers," these pieces force us to question the validity and quality of life on Earth. Keret confronts that classic and singular existential question, What's the point of all this? His unique take on this age-old query leads us to the afterlife. What is Heaven like? Hell? What actually transpires once someone takes her own life? Though clearly indebted to the tradition of magical realism, once we allow ourselves to believe in these places beyond the grave, Keret's work reveals provocative truths derivative of the basic problem of existence.

The very premise of "Kneller's Happy Campers" is beyond hilarious. Imagine the scenario. A dejected, misunderstood human being reaches the proverbial end of his rope and desires nothing more than the comfort of oblivion, freedom from the suffering that is everyday life. Where does he go once he leaves this world? A place that resembles the planet whence he came, just a little bit crappier. The concept is brilliant. Is this a punishment for suicide? A reward? The characters, once they reach this bizarre purgatory, can still eat, sleep, work, have sex. How bad could it be? Once through the gateway of death, these characters are thrust back into life, thus obliterating the very point of their self-destruction. Perhaps that, in itself, constitutes punishment.

Though Keret's prose is indeed interesting enough in its own right to be discussed more explicitly, I want to take a chance in this venue to muse upon some broader, more philosophical questions; for what is the point of literature if not to encourage the reader to ponder the big questions in life? I wonder if this special afterlife that Keret portrays is like one of Dante's levels of Hell. I am reminded of the film Fried Green Tomatoes in which Ruth insists that there is a separate God for children. Is there a separate Hell for rapists? Abusers? Murderers? Kickers of cats and dogs and children? Keret positions himself precariously in reference to religion as nearly every tradition classifies suicide as one of the worst offenses. It would make sense, then, that these most blasphemous criminals should be sent to an awful, unbearable place. Ironically, the setting in this novella doesn't actually seem too bad at all. Perhaps, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, off-ers are pardoned to some extent because Jesus himself could be considered a suicide. At least, Keret implies as much near the end of the novella.

The "Messiah King," conveniently named "J," could easily serve as a Christ figure. Near the end of his earthly life, Jesus was aware that he was to be betrayed and killed. He could have split town and avoided his own martyrdom. His death, then, registers as suicide in the same way that Lihi's does. Lihi used heroin, fully aware that it could kill her. However, she feels that she is in the wrong place because she didn't want to die. In Christian mythology, Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of mankind; therefore, his agency in his own demise could be interepreted as suicide. Interestingly enough, this type of sacrifice recalls any suicide mission, most poignantly that of the suicide bomber who is represented in Keret's imagined landscape as the bartender at Djin. Here, Keret really strikes a blow to traditional Judeo-Christian values.

"Say," Uzi pressed on, "is it true that when you people go out on a job they promise you seventy nymphomaniac virgins in Kingdom Come? All for you, solico?" "Sure they promise," Nasser said, "and look what it got me. Lukewarm vodka." "So you're just a sucker in the end, eh, ya Nasser," Uzi gloated. "Sure thing," Nasser nodded. "And you, what did they promise you?" (Keret 106)

Both perspectives in this scene, that of an assumed Arab religious fanatic and an Israeli Jew who is suspicious of Arabs and never actually served in the IDF, support Freud's assertion that religion is, above all, a palliative measure for human beings. For centuries, people have used religion as justification for acts ranging from feeding the hungry to committing genocide against entire groups. In addition to the power religious ideology to compel action, faith and belief in an afterlife work together to ease the pain of death's inevitability. The notion of seventy willing virgins awaiting heroic Muslim males in the afterlife is absurd on its own, but when fortified with religious doctrine, it becomes viable. Uzi feels that he has conquered the moral high ground when he casts Nasser as a fool, after which, Nasser strikes back. Though we know nothing of Uzi's personal relationship to religion, we might assume that he belongs to the Jewish tradition that condemns suicide. With his powerful last words in this scene, Nasser unveils Uzi as a hypocrite, and worse, as a cowardly traitor to his own faith. Uzi committed suicide without expectation of reward. He was simply unable to cope with existence any longer. Who, then, is the is the winner of this morbid battle -- one who dies for a cause or one who runs away from life?

I am not necessarily picking a winner here. I simply delight in Keret's ability to pull the rug out from under us, for creating a text that asks us to make decisions about what sort of death is most acceptable, most glorious, most preferable.


  1. yes, in that one scene he blows holes through the religious dogmas of each side, and throughout the final piece, calls into question the value of religion in our lives.

  2. interesting Katie. He seems to do something similar in the piece about the entrance to Hell, when the girl considers going through the opening and feels drawn towards it. He definitely plays with the value of life, and even the threat of what we would consider to be "hell." His perceptions of the afterlife that we see in these stories are remarkably similar to life.

  3. What a thoughtful post. This book was both humorous and poignant.

  4. As an atheist my only thinking about the afterlife is what predictions/projections tells us about life on earth. In this vein, an after world for suiciders makes sense to me. In a way suicide (and I am not talking about killing yourself when you are about to die from illness) is selfish, and, I suppose, self-involved to an extreme degree. The kind of degree that comes from severe depression. So, in a sense, these suicides deserve to be with each other. And so does the difficulty they have there in making connection.