Arts and Culture | Israel

In ‘Tel Aviv Noir,’ city’s underbelly gets its due

"Tel Aviv Noir" exposes through short fiction the seamier sides of the Israeli city known as "the bubble." (Courtesy of Akashic Books)
“Tel Aviv Noir” exposes through short fiction the seamier sides of the Israeli city known as “the bubble.” (Courtesy of Akashic Books)

(JTA) — Asked by a literary magazine to name an Israeli author deserving of English translation, Etgar Keret — the Tel Aviv-based writer whose short stories have been published to worldwide acclaim — named novelist Gadi Taub.

A year later, Keret has been instrumental in bringing Taub’s prose to an American audience with the forthcoming anthology “Tel Aviv Noir,” which Keret edited alongside Israeli novelist, translator and musician Assaf Gavron.

The anthology, which probes the Israeli city’s underbelly, opens with Taub’s short story “Sleeping-Mask,” a modern fable about a young woman who enters into prostitution in an effort to pay off her father’s gambling debts.

Of the women who put out prostitution ads, the story’s narrator explains, “We all walk inside the grid of normal life. But they walk under it, crossing all the lines diagonally. The world doesn’t just look different from that angle, it looks upside down. I’m not trying to say that’s where you see the truth. It’s a half-truth, the half most people don’t want to see.”

Taub’s words could be a manifesto for the anthology, which is due out Tuesday from Akashic Books.

“Tel Aviv Noir” exposes through short fiction the seamier sides of the Israeli city known as “the Bubble.” Akashic has previously published “Noir” volumes focused on some 70 other cities, including more obvious candidates like Las Vegas, Miami and Manila.

The 14 stories in “Tel Aviv Noir,” all original and commissioned for this volume, are divided into three categories: Encounter, Estrangements and Corpses. Keret and Gavron agreed that a major goal of the anthology was to bring a younger generation of writers to English-speaking audiences. At 49, Taub, whose best-selling novel “Allenby Street” was made into a popular Israeli television show, is the oldest.

A few of the writers, such as Lavie Tidhar and Silje Bekeng, write in English, (Tidhar’s contribution takes a look at what could have been if Tel Aviv had grown according to Herzl’s dream.) But the work of most of the writers, including Gai Ad, Matan Hermoni, Deakla Kaydar and Yoav Katz, had never been accessible to English-speaking audiences.

“Tel Aviv is a city built around the tension between never-ending life: pubs open all night, a weekend at the end of every day — and death itself: terrible slums, crime, war, terrorism, poverty and addiction,” said Gon Ben Ari, who contributed to the anthology, and whose Hebrew-language novel “Sequoia Children” is being translated into English. “The fullness of the senses is only defined in its relation to the imminent death.”

Kaydar told JTA that her attitude to the anthology changed with the Gaza war this summer.

“I remember thinking to myself that Tel Aviv is so lightened, happy and hot — not very ‘noirish,’ ” she said. “And then came July and the war hit us. I found myself with my two little girls sitting in a shelter, hiding from bombs whistling over our heads nonstop, every day and night for 48 days straight. These were the darkest days, not only in Tel Aviv but all over Israel — and for both sides — Israelis and Palestinians. I guess I miss the days when I was looking for a good noir-darkness to write about.”

Keret’s contribution to “Tel Aviv Noir” is about a couple who adopts a dog and does increasingly strange things — like killing pigeons and eventually other living beings — to feed it. In an interview with JTA, he said the story was an allegory for life in Israel.

“This universe in which many things that are totally not normal and extreme become part of your daily routine,” he explained.

And we come to take these extremes for granted.

“In Alaska, you don’t know how cold it is,” Keret said. “Tel Aviv is one of the safest cities I’ve ever known. A girl can walk at 4 a.m. and not feel scared. At the same time, a bomber can get inside and explode. Which side are you more focused on?”

For his part, Gavron said it is interesting to note that the anthology is coming out at the same time as “Tehran Noir,” which is focused on the capital city of Iran. In an interview from Omaha, where he is American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise Scholar at the University of Nebraska, Gavron said, “Tel Aviv deserves its status as an interesting city, with culture and literature and with noir as well as everywhere in the world. I like to be grouped with other cities in the world, and not in [the] usual context that Israel is given.”

Gavron’s story in “Tel Aviv Noir” centers on a murder at a start-up that has developed “an application that helps you find misplaced things.” It takes place at Dizengoff Center, a Tel Aviv shopping mall and office building.

Keret happens to live near Dizengoff Center and visits it frequently. Still, he was surprised to learn of the “boxing club, huge parking spaces and secret places I don’t know” described in Gavron’s work.

“It is a bit like meeting your neighbor every day, and one day he invites you home and there is a shrine for Elvis,” Keret said. “You think, ‘I thought I knew this guy.’ ”