A picture speaks 1000 words

A re-release of Etgar Keret's 'Jetlag,' a collection of five graphic novellas set in Israel, offers the readers a visual feast.

jetlag book 88 298 (photo credit: )
jetlag book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Jetlag By Etgar Keret and Actus Comics Translated by Dan Ofri Toby Press 90pp., $12.95 A paralyzed monkey who scoffs dessert, a horny air-stewardess who warns of imminent disaster, a porcelain pig called Margolis with a cold nose and a winsome smile - these are some of the characters in Keret land. Originally released back in 1999, Jetlag, a combination of Etgar Keret's wild imagination and the illustrations of Actus Tragicus (a collective of five startlingly creative Israeli artists), is being re-released this month by Toby Press. The collection includes five short stories, each one more surreal than the next. In "Hatrick," a jaded magician performs before a pre-adolescent Tel Aviv audience more interested in Schwarzenegger movies than party tricks, "Margolis" features a father's attempts at teaching his son a lesson in valuing money, while in "The Romanian Circus," a bored travel agent falls in love with a tight-rope walker none too skilled at her job. Each story is illustrated in a radically different way, one with computer graphics, another with hand drawn images and yet others with intricate material cut outs, exquisite attention to detail and hyper photo-realism. For Keret, the collection is pure joy, an opportunity to see his work interpreted anew and enriched. "It's an experience to put out a book together like this," said Keret, on a recent call from his Tel Aviv apartment. "It's like entering someone else's head. These stories are from my soul, and they've passed through these illustrators' digestive system. "The illustrations don't come in place of, or instead of the stories," says Keret. "They don't neutralize them." Comics, says Keret, are a great in-between medium. "It's not like a film which doesn't allow you more than one interpretation. Here you still have your own voice in your head, your own interpretation… as well as an illustration and another interpretation." The illustrators had complete control over how they wanted to illustrate the text, even through Keret worked closely with them throughout the process. "They made their own decisions, and there isn't one story illustration in the collection that I didn't connect with." In the first story, "Hatrick," the magician leaves his best trick until last. Lying hot and sweaty in his briefs during a sweltering Israeli summer, he goes over the moments before the climax: "My eyes stay glued on the audience, the hand goes into the hat, groping deep inside, till it finds Kazzam's ears. Kazzam, that's my rabbit's name. And then - A-LLA KAZZIM A-LLA KAZZAM! - I pull him out." Only things go horribly wrong. When he tries the trick in an uptown Tel Aviv party, instead of the whole bunny, only a bloody, furry head emerges. The phone doesn't stop ringing, invitations flow for the magician to perform. The next time around, he is nervous, flustered. He screws up his card trick and sweats out the time before the final trick. The weight feels right, but he can't find the ears. A dead baby with an enormous head takes up the next frame, pulled out of the hat. Throughout the story, Batia Koltan's illustrations show the blood-loving, grotesque nature of the children in the audience, their shock and terror, but also their glee. The stylized faces all have massive mouths and ghoulish grins. Their eyes are hollow and empty. In each frame the colors are muted and menacing, shadows appear everywhere. The illustrations successfully bring to life the nightmarish, surreal quality of the story while preserving Keret's appreciation for the mundane reality of contemporary Israeli life - the little hand-held electric fans in the childrens' hands, the back-to-front baseball caps and dungarees, the inevitability of the huge, iced cake that comes out at the most importune moment. Keret jumps into a different world with "Margolis," a story of a young boy whose father tries to educate his son about the value of money. No Bart Simpson doll, he says to his wife, until he understands that you have to work to get what you want. "Children who get their Bart Simpson dolls easily, later grow up to be thugs who rob kiosks." His father buys him a piggy bank and tells him that when it's full he can have his Bart Simpson doll on a skateboard. In order to earn the coins, he has to drink hot chocolate. "With skin is a quarter, no skin is a dime. And if I throw up everything right after, then I don't get nothing." But the harsh moral message seems misdirected. The child's moral sense is fully developed. The boy gives the pig a name - "Margolis" - after someone whose name appears on the mailbox of his building. He doesn't want the doll anymore, he only wants this plain porcelain pig who doesn't have "flashing lights and batteries that leak inside." The tale's drama grows as the pig gets fuller and fuller, and the boy falls deeper and deeper in love with his pig. One day, the inevitable occurs. The child's father comes, hammer in hand, to break the hog so his son can get the doll. In order to save him, the child abandons him in the middle of a thorny field, full to the brim with his hard-earned coins. Yirmi Pinkus's illustrations places the story in no-where Israeli suburbia of faceless apartment blocks. He hints at a sub-plot (not present in the original story) that the mother is having an affair, throwing the ludicrous nature of the father's misguided disciplinary actions into even greater relief. Many frames place a selection of the characters in a dank grayish green that verges on monochrome, while others bask in a warm, yellow-pink domestic glow. When the boy plays alone, the colors and shadows become less menacing, more natural and "normal." The award winning illustrations lend this story both comic relief and emotional depth. Pinkus and Rutu Modan, whose illustrations animate the final story of the collection, founded the Actus Tragicus comics group together in 1995. Modan is perhaps the best known of the illustrators here; her illustrations have appeared in Yediot Aharonot, Am Oved, Ha'ir, Shocken Press and Bnot Ha'ir, and she worked together with Keret to create the children's book Dad Runs Away with the Circus (Candlewick press, 2004). Her painstakingly detailed work, rich with intricate patterns and delightful designs, are instantly recognizable. In the final story of the collection, "The Romanian Circus," her illustrations tell the story together with Keret of a blossoming love that quickly rots as the woman abandons her suitor, together with her paralyzed pet monkey, never to be seen again. Like most of Keret's work, the magic and charm of these stories lies in the unexpected. There are twists and turns everywhere, thrown between the author's nonchalant tone: Harsh discipline becomes a soft, emotional tale of loss and abandonment. Trite party tricks become dark and malevolent; porn-like lust such as in "Jetlag," illustrated by Itzik Rennert, becomes life-saving selflessness. The illustrations allow for an element of visual release and heightened drama. Keret is particularly pleased to see the collection re-released. "I don't care about the money, and I'm not interested in the contract," says Keret. "I just want 80 copies to give to friends... for fun." Meanwhile, Keret is pressing on ahead. He's recently been working on a film called Jellyfish (Meduzot), written by his partner, Shira Gefen. "It's a story about three women in Tel Aviv whose lives intertwine," says Keret. One of the women is forced to look after a five-year-old girl who emerges from the sea and doesn't speak. Another character, a care-giver from the Philippines, is forced to act as the emotional negotiator between her elderly patient and the woman's daughter. "We work very well together, it's a great experience," says Keret of Shira. But neither the book nor the film are what currently keeps him up nights. A few months back, the couple gave birth to a baby boy, Lev, and Keret has been up to his eyeballs in diapers since. "There's something very primal about the experience of birth," says Keret. "It's at once a meeting with death and with life. When he came out, after a long and difficult labor, he didn't cry, he just accepted it. It was as if he were saying, 'maybe it was more comfortable there, but it's more interesting here.'"