Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Two for one, and there's no border

Full title: Gaza Blues: Different Stories
Authors: Etgar Keret & Samir El-Youssef
Genre: Fiction, stories
Attributes: 180 pages, paperback
Publ.: David Paul (2004)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The volume is divided equally: almost the same number of pages to each author. But Samir El-Youssef features with one story, while Etgar Keret with fifteen. The number doesn't really matter, though. What matters is the symbolic nature of this ‘marriage’: an Israeli author and a Palestinian author dissolving political divisions and letting literature break loose.
Samir El-Youssef’s story, “The Day the Beast Got Thirsty,” is industriously dynamic. It describes a world full of small personal interests, some ridiculous, some innocent, some mischievous, some fairly dangerous. All of them put together make a history that comes at spectacular odds with grand narratives such as national identity, patriotism, political consciousness and so on. Big issues, however, are often on the lips of El-Youssef’s characters. Let us not forget, this is a Palestinian camp in Lebanon, where big things do happen, whether one wishes them or not: intifada, terrorists, illegal migration; things the world is afraid of, things that threaten and frighten. But they do not hijack the story. The story belongs to the small and the unimportant. Voices grow multiple and noisy, to the point where everything becomes a terrible cacophony: the cacophony of life taking care of its own business.
What’s even more interesting in El-Youssef’s story is the sense of constant competition. It happens between neighbours, between political factions, between ideas and ideals. The protagonists, intellectuals lost in the vortex of their very eventful lives, find time to behave like intellectuals, but there’s a sense that this matters less, that the physical world of daily resolutions gives them no chance; that the competition is too much for them.

Samir El-Youssef
Etgar Keret
Source (for both images): Siren
Keret’s stories are also minute universes. They are self-sufficient, well encased in their own nut shells, most of them with endings that are absolute and definitive. His topics are as various as they are surprising: a wife found stuck to the ceiling, a dog that refuses to die, the meaning of life found in a book about the meaning of life, a pipe in which things disappear (the narrator included).
From the point of view of Keret’s fine narrative prestidigitation, the story that stands out is in fact a cycle of three stories: “Shoshi,” “Shosi 2” and “Shoshi 3” (ironic even in the way they are titled). One finds in these stories a character who intrudes in the life of the author himself, trying to destabilize the very story in which he makes his appearance. The author, however, takes revenge by leaving the character’s last sentence unfinished. Very clever!
From the point of view of Keret’s tongue-in-cheekness (which is apparent throughout), the special one is “Surprise Egg.” A woman who had died in a terrorist attack is found to have been so full of tumors, she would have died anyway within weeks. Her death, however, poses a double problem: on the one hand it’s the conscience of the husband (who will blame himself: “If only I’d driven her. She’d still be alive now, sitting here in the kitchen with me.”), and on the other the conscience of the country (which needs martyrs in order to justify revenge). The dramatic accent of the story is in this dilemma. The only person who knows about the tumors (the doctor who had performed the autopsy), chooses to ease his own conscience. He takes a cowardly middle ground, which leaves the husband crying and the country glorious, the way they were in the first place:
“What is cancer, he thought to himself, if not a terrorist attack from above? What is it that God is doing if not terrorising us in protest against… something?”
In general, though, Keret’s stories stand out for their quirky twists, for the intrusion of fantasy in a reality that’s constantly destabilized. If El-Youssef’s story (whose realism is, up to a certain point, the dominant force) challenges the grand narrative of history, Keret’s stories challenge the very grounds of reality. And for this reason, they both deserve to be part of the same volume, as they are.