Etgar Keret: Kneller’s Happy Campers
The Israeli writer, Etgar Keret, is probably best known for writing short stories, a few collections of which have seen translation. Typically the stories are very short, no more than a few pages, and his collection Missing Kissinger had no less than fifty tucked away within its pages. Kneller’s Happy Campers (1998) was the longest story in another collection, The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories, published in the US. Either it deserves to be published as a standalone book in the UK or its publisher is milking it in these recessionary times.
The novella follows the life – well, afterlife – of Mordy, who has recently committed suicide and found himself in a world not unlike the one he’s just left (“I’d always imagine these beeping sounds, like a fuzz-buster, and people floating around in space and stuff. But now that I’m here, I don’t know, mostly it reminds me of Tel Aviv.”)
The big difference here is that the population is entirely made up of suicides, each person showing the traits of how they offed themselves. Mordy’s new friend, Uzi Gelfand, shows the scars on his head where the bullet went in and out, and the girls at the local bars (“you could tell straight off how they did it, with the scars on their wrists and everything, but there were some that looked really good.” Those without scars, “who did it with pills or poison”, are called Juliets. There’s even room for celebrity suicides, where Keret throws in a cameo for some humour:
Last night was awful. Uzi brought this friend of his, Kurt. Thinks the guy’s really cool ’cause he was the leader of some famous band and everything. But the truth is he’s a big-time prick. I mean, I’m not exactly sold on the place either, but this guy, he wouldn’t stop bitching. And once he gets going – forget it. He’ll dig into you like a bloody bat. Anything that comes up always reminds him of some song he wrote, and he’s got to recite it for you so you can tell him how cool the lyrics are. Sometimes he’ll even ask the bartender to play one of his tracks and you just wanna dig yourself a hole in the ground. It isn’t just me. Everybody hates him, except Uzi. I think there’s this thing that after you off yourself, with the way it hurts and everything -and it hurts like hell – the last thing you give a shit about is somebody with nothing on his mind except singing about how unhappy he is.
On arriving in this afterlife, Mordy has found himself working a deadbeat job in a pizza chain called Kamikaze. When not slaving away he’s doing whistlestop tours of the bars, getting drunk. So, when he hears that Desiree, his girlfriend from before he killed himself, has also taken her life he sets off in the car, with Uzi, to find her. Such is love.
Like much of the novella, the journey taken is just as strange and funny as the premise. However, below the surface there are serious stirrings, Keret’s afterlife holding a mirror up to the world we live in and highlighting its flaws. At one point during their road trip racism is briefly touched upon as Gelfand overlooks his own circumstances to pass sweeping comments upon a group of people:
The people outside looked a lot like the ones in our neighbourhood – their eyes kinda dim, and dragging their feet. The only difference was that Gelfand didn’t know them – which was enough to make him paranoid.
‘I’m not being paranoid. Don’t you get it? They’re all Arabs.’
‘So what if they’re Arabs?’ I asked.
‘So what? I dunno. Arabs – suicides – doesn’t that psych you out, even a little?’
Along the way they pick up a Juliet, who maintains there’s been a clerical error because she didn’t off herself, and by the time they meet the eponymous Kneller the story, if not strange enough, takes a turn for the surreal, introducing almost whimsical ideas that, given the circumstances, never really feel out of place. Kneller, presiding over a commune, talks of the ‘miracles’ that happen in the vicinity, of which we see a number happening, but after that the breakneck speed events take seems as if it’s rushing to the end so as to mask that there’s not much storyline to be had and the charming conceit that opens the novel shadows the latter half. In all fairness, the conclusion is satisfying, but the road there is unscenic.
While its bizarre humour had me wondering where Keret would lead off to next, and its informal, sometimes colloquial style, was for the most part engaging, the same couldn’t be said for its characters: they were sorely lacking a dimension. All singular minded and sketchy. As his short stories typically only take a few pages each, one wonders if he’s not more interested in the surreal twists of imagination he is capable of than giving his playthings substance. So, while I’m not a fully fledged happy camper, I was satisfied enough with the ride, although, like all the characters, I was happy to check out.
June 30, 2009