As I blogged about last week, I am going to be making occasional short reviews of books from the Reading the World consortium of publishers of recently-translated fiction. The first two books I chose were short story collections, I'd Like, by Greek author Amanda Michalopoulou, and The Girl on the Fridge by Israeli writer Etgar Keret. If these two are indicative of the quality of this collection of 25 books, then it bodes well for the other 23, as I enjoyed both of these books for very different reasons.
Michalopoulou's collection of 13 short stories reads more like 13 beginnings and middle portions of an unfinished, untamed draft to a novel. In the eponymous first story, a wife and her husband, a frustrated writer, have a fateful meeting with a distinguished author:
From there, the next story, "A Slight, Controlled Unease," takes up the reins of this story, revealing it to be a story within a story, one that the writer is musing over while another seeks domination. Like matrioshka dolls, each story is nested within each other, creating a vivid, insightful, sometimes ironic or cynical tapestry that sucks the reader into its whirling vortex of character and story. Michalopoulou is a very talented storyteller and her prose cuts through those wasted, idle spaces between words, creating an emotional connection between characters and reader.
"What do you want me to ask? How exactly he beats her? If he pushes her down and kicks her? Is that what you want? To gossip?"
"I want to feel your surprise. You know why your stories have become so hollow? Your characters hear the strangest things in the world and just go on eating their cake. Or smoking."
"Thanks for the constructive criticism! That's just what I need at six in the morning!"
My finger burns inside its splint.
"Why don't we continue this conversation in the morning?" my husband says.
"It is morning."
"All of a sudden I'm exhausted."
"You're always exhausted, every time anything happens to upset the status quo. Just don't take up smoking, please. We've got enough to deal with already, what with the drinking and the constant fault-finding."
He closes the shutters and night falls again, just for the two of us. His exhaustion is contagious. First my brain goes numb, then my hands, then my knees. How will I ever find the strength to take off my clothes and slip into bed? It seems like the most difficult thing in the world. So I just watch him undress.
First his shirt. Then his shoes. He pulls his socks off together with his pants.
A failed writer in boxer shorts.
A failed painter, fully dressed.
We don't hit each other. And we don't embrace.
There are other ways. (pp. 10-11)
Etgar Keret's latest collection, The Girl on the Fridge, reminded me of a harsher, even more cynical and ironic version of David Sedaris. The book description gave some hint of this: "A birthday-party magician whose hat tricks end in horror and gore; a girl parented by a major household appliance; the possessor of the lowest IQ in [the]Mossad..." Keret's stories revel in the cruelties that lie behind the humor, or perhaps in the humor that lies behind the blackest urges in our lives. Told mostly in very brief 1-3 page stories, here is one example, from "Slimy Shlomo Is a Homo":
The sub told them to line up in pairs. Slimy Shlomo Is a Homo was the odd man out. "I'll be your partner," the sub said and gave him her hand.
Then they went for a walk in the park, and Slimy Shlomo Is a Homo looked at the boats in the artificial lake, and at a gigantic sculpture of an orange, and then a bird pooped on his hat.
"Shit sticks to shit," Yuval shouted at them from behind, and the other kids laughed.
"Ignore them," the sub said and rinsed his hat off under a faucet. Next came the ice-cream man, and everyone bought ice cream. Slimy Shlomo Is a Homo ate his Popsicle, and when he finished, he pushed the stick between the tiles in the pavement and pretended it was a rocket. The other kids were fooling around on the grass, and only Slimy Shlomo Is a Homo and the sub, who was smoking a cigarette and looking pretty tired, stayed on the pavement.
"Why do all the kids hate me?" Slimy Shlomo Is a Homo asked her.
"How should I know?" The sub shrugged her drooping shoulders. "I'm just a sub." (pp. 99-100)
While this might seem to be of the blackest and perhaps most unfunny of humors, it is an element that underlies the more bizarre tales, such as a mother firing a gun at snot-nosed kids who have begun stoning her soldier son, or that of the least intelligent member of the Israeli secret intelligence force, the Mossad. Often cruel things happen, and yet underneath that is an absurdness that made for some uncomfortable chuckles and laughs. Keret's humor is biting and acerbic, but yet it translates well into English and it makes for some startling considerations long after the last word of a story is read.
Both Michalopoulou and Keret display quite a bit of talent with using the le mot juste to set up their tales and to execute them with élan. Their translators, Karen Emmerich for Michalopoulou and Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston for Keret, have done outstanding work with making these stories feel as though the reader were experiencing the author's tale first-hand and not via the translation medium. Both of these are highly recommended works and right now they might be the two best short story collections I've read so far this year.
I'd Like - April 10, 2008 (US), tradeback.
The Girl on the Fridge - April 15, 2008 (US), tradeback.
I'd Like - Dalkey Archive Press
The Girl on the Fridge - Farrar, Straus and Giroux