30-minute wonder


Ziv Navoth <em>Ziji, 365pp, £8.99</em>

ISBN 0955405114


"This doesn't look like a book, it doesn't read like a book," proclaims an anonymous quote on the front of Ziv Navoth's Nanotales, a collection of shorter-than-short stories aimed at young, busy urbanites who simply don't have the time to read novels. "In fact, I'm not even sure we should call it a book," the mystery admirer continues. "We should call it brilliant."

Turn to the back cover, and things get even better. In creating the nanotale, a "quick fix" of storytelling that lasts just seven minutes, Navoth "has invented a new form of literature", we are told. As anyone familiar with the ultra-short story genre of "flash fiction" can tell you, this isn't exactly true, but perhaps Navoth's publisher is hoping that its target market will be too young and busy to notice.

New or not, Nanotales has been turning heads. This not-book (which does, in fact, look very much like a book) is being promoted by social networking website Bebo and Guardian Unlimited, who are encouraging teenage readers to enter their own stories into a competition. If that sounds like a daunting prospect, then it's made easier by the knowledge that Navoth - a London-based marketing consultant - spent only 30 minutes on each of the 83 stories that comprise Nanotales.

And it shows. Plots, characters and dialogue are drawn straight from the Big Book of Hollywood Cliché. A vengeful girl produces a pistol, "the type that could fit in a woman's purse". A bumbling assassin, possibly Russian, recounts in broken English his failed attempt to extort money from "great aero plane engineer Piotr Ilyushin". Various couples have unconvincing and aggressive conversations, often revolving around men's worries about prowess in the bedroom - or "dick size", as Navoth succinctly puts it.

The monotony is occasionally broken by episodes of pointless, frequently sexual, violence. In one story, a father thinks his daughter is a slut, and rapes her in order to teach her a lesson. The nanotwist at the end of this tale is that she was a virgin all along. Clever, huh?

In return for our £8.99, we are promised short, intense bursts of emotion, but the only emotion a nanotale is likely to provoke is a sense of rancour that there go seven minutes of your life you'll never get back. Or, as one of Navoth's characters might put it, in an unspecified transatlantic drawl: "This sucks. Real bad."

Navoth's get-out clause is that these stories are aimed at encouraging a new generation to read - a generation whose attention span has been ravaged by TV, mobile phones, computer games and the internet. But you don't get anywhere by patronising your audience. This is thrown into stark relief by the latest translation of short stories by the Israeli writer and film-maker Etgar Keret. Missing Kissinger is a beguiling, savagely funny collection of stories populated by magicians, children, talking animals and jilted lovers. Some run like fables, albeit ones with a slightly warped message. Others unfold like a game of consequences, with unpredictable twists and turns in the space of a few hundred words.

Keret, one of a generation of Israelis who have grown up with the weight of the Holocaust and of Zionism on their shoulders, breaks the mould for an Israeli intellectual. He has collaborated with the Palestinian author Samir el-Youssef, has been denounced in the Knesset as anti-Semitic and is criticised by older left-wing writers for a lack of political commitment. Behind all that is an insightful, witty writer with a wholly original style. His characters are often unhappy, but Keret renders their situation with warmth and humour.

One of the most outstanding tales is about a man who tries to stay miserable until Happiness carts him off, smiling, in a van covered with pictures of The Simpsons characters. Alongside an eye for detail, Keret regularly displays a turn of phrase that can be devastating. Another story concerns a man who dares his guardian angel to fly off a roof, only to discover that he wasn't an angel at all, "just a liar with wings".

According to one interview with Keret, he is the most widely read author in Israeli prisons. This, he demurely suggests, is due to the brevity of his stories, but it could also be argued that it's because of the subtle way in which they subvert authority. In the opening story, a father tries to teach his son the value of money by giving him a pink china piggy bank. The child becomes so attached to the pig, which he names Margolis, that he cannot bring himself to smash it when the time comes. For all the father's insistence that his son develop an "awareness", the child cultivates the kind of emotional awareness that could never be controlled by parental decree. Told in Keret's sharp, fast-moving style, the story is both funny and heart-breaking.

Elsewhere, when an Israel Defence Forces conscript finds himself pointing a gun at an Arab, the only way he can deal with the situation is to throw the weapon on the floor, stepping away from a position of power he never wanted to be in. Like many of the stories in the collection, this one ends with horrific, cartoonish violence - less for the reader's gratification than to illustrate the absurdity of the situation.

Absurdity is a theme that runs throughout Missing Kissinger. Whether it's the absurdity of living in a country whose founding myth relies on the negation of an entire people, or the absurdity of being so utterly in love with someone that you'll harm yourself just to please them, it is the tangle of confused and frustrated desires that gives these stories their rich pathos. Keret is a writer who knows that emotions don't come neatly packaged in seven-minute bursts. He'll leave you with more questions than answers, but you'll feel all the better for it.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war