A collection of Jewish, Israeli and magical realism short stories sounded just like my kind of thing. Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories stings and thrills with fierce fables of modern life. And I had no idea going into this, but it turned out that I was already familiar with the author’s writing from school back when we’d read “Breaking the Pig.” So when I stumbled upon said short story in here, I was beyond joyful to have everything come back.
The author, without a doubt, knows his stuff. Brief, intense, painfully funny, and shockingly honest, Keret’s stories are snapshots that illuminate with intelligence and wit the hidden truths of life. From having a shitty angel friend (“That’s when he finally understood that of all the things the angel had told him, nothing was true. That he wasn’t even an angel, just a liar with wings.”) to joining the circus to Holocaust Memorial Day to someone’s struggle with their compulsive good-heartedness, these swift tales captivated me and reminded me of everything I know and everything I still don’t.
With all that I loved, however, I still think I made a mistake deciding to read the English translation of this collection because it kind of made the writing lose a bit of its magic. From what I recall of reading Keret in school, his humor is better conveyed in the original language. And I just kept thinking throughout that I should’ve read this in Hebrew.
But on a more positive note, I cherished it immensely when strong emotions where evoked out of me while reading. I laughed, raged, rolled my eyes and connected with so many stories and little moments within them.
Moments such as capturing the love we feel for home-cooked meals:
“There’s something nice about home cooking. I mean, it’s hard to explain, but there’s something special about it, a feeling. As if your stomach can figure out that it’s food you didn’t have to pay for, that someone actually made it out of love. ”
To feeling that palpable rage against Nazi German bastards, especially on Holocaust Memorial Day:
“Then an old skinny man got on the stage and told us what bastards and murderers the Nazis were and how he took revenge on them, and even strangled a soldier with his own hands until he died. Jerby, who was sitting next to me, said the old man was lying; the way he looks, there’s no way he can make any soldier bite the dust. But I looked the old man in the eye and believed him. He had so much anger in his eyes, that all the violent rage of iron-pumping hoods I’ve seen seemed like small change in comparison.”
“Finally, when he finished telling us what he had done during the Holocaust, the old man said that what we had just heard was relevant not only to the past but also for what goes on now, because the Germans still exist and still have a state. He said he was never going to forgive them, and that he hoped we, too, would never ever go visit their country. Because when he went with his parents to Germany fifty years ago everything looked nice, but it ended in hell. People have short memories, he said, especially when bad things are concerned. People tend to forget, he said, but you won’t forget. Every time you see a German, you’ll remember what I told you. Every time you see German products, be it television (since most televisions here are made by German manufacturers) or anything else, you’ll always remember that underneath the elegant wrapping are hidden parts and tubes made of bones and skin and flesh of dead Jews.”
And then wrapping the collection up with a good ol’ case of tragicomedy when a man is fed up of being compared his whole life to another “Just like me, only a tiny bit better”:
“We’re about to land, sir. I insist you return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt, like . . .” True, she went on to say “like all the other passengers,” but what I saw in her eyes was Katzenstein. I pushed down on the lever and forced the door open with my shoulder. I was perfectly calm as I was sucked out, leaving all hell behind me.
Suicide is still considered a dreadful sin in the Afterlife. I begged them to try and understand, but they wouldn’t listen. As they were dragging me to Hell, there was Katzenstein. Him and the other passengers, waving at me through the window of the tour bus that was taking them to Heaven. The plane had crashed as it hit the ground, about fifteen minutes after I’d bailed out. A rare malfunction. One in a million. If only I’d stuck it out in my seat another few seconds, like all the other passengers. Like Katzenstein.”
All in all: These stories were real and vulgar and undeniably sincere. I can’t wait to read more of Keret’s writing in the near future.
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