Etgar Keret: “What Animal Are You?”

11/30/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, June 2011. (Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger.)

I’m generally not a fan of framing devices: they often seem to waste time establishing one character and place (“A man walks into a bar…”) merely to jump to another (“The bartender abruptly starts in with one client, and the man can’t help but listen to his story. It seems that…”). Likewise with stream-of-consciousness, which can be nice in small doses, giving us insight into the people we’ll be following around for the next three hundred pages, but which often seem sloppy and lazy in shorter works, as if the author has decided to publish a writing exercise (or a blog, which also tends to be less polished and precise). And yet, Keret works well with both, excusing them right off the bat by having his narrator, a writer, explain that everything you’re in the process of reading, he’s in the process of writing, having been asked by a reporter

to write something on the computer because it always makes for great visuals: an author writing. It’s a cliche, she realizes that, but cliches are nothing but an unsexy version of the truth, and her role, as a reporter, is to turn that truth into something sexy, to break the cliche with lighting and unusual angles.

The setting is unusual, to be sure, but then again, Keret’s story is all about artificiality: the lengths to which we human animals go to make the artificial seem natural, and yet somehow manage to turn our natural activities into strained and awkward ones. We’ve lost the ability to simply play, freely, like the author’s four-year-old child; most adults, when asked “What animal are you?” don’t understand how to play along. (“‘Write a story about just that–about how unnatural it seems and how the unnatural suddenly produces something real, filled with passion.'”) Such is the tragedy of the story, in that even in this brief exercise, the protagonist’s thoughts cannot help but turn to the difficulties he’s having with his wife, the rage that he, as a member of the liberal left, feels unable to release. (I suggest channeling it at the ultraconservative right wingnuts; that’s what we do here in America.)

Why can’t she just go with the flow, my wife? Why is it so easy for her to call women with cheap perfume “whores” but when it comes to telling a little boy “I’m a giraffe” it’s more than she can handle? It really gets on my nerves. Makes me want to hit someone. Not her. Her I love. But someone.

Keret intentionally writes a bunch of artificial stuff in order to show the natural struggle to push through for something real: how hard we have to try, blunted first by cynicism, rage, manners, and all the other myriad things we do to pretend that we’re not animals. I’m not sure I quite understand the reporter’s semi-joke (“I’m not an animal. I’m a monster. A monster that came from across the ocean to eat pretty little children like you.”) but I like the way the story ends, with the writer translating her words to his son in a gentler light: “She says she’s a red-feathered songbird, who flew here from a faraway land.” Is this a comment on the sort of breaks from reality that we do allow, i.e., the white lies that help us to get along and sleep well at night? Given that the story’s less than two pages, I might be reading into it a little too much, which only speaks to Keret’s success in conjuring up such nuanced characters in such little time.



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