Etgar Keret's singular blend of fantastical and familiar
In his latest collection of stories, Etgar Keret serves up his singular blend of the nostalgic yet new, in tales that feel darker and more mature than some of his previous work.
Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret (translated from the Hebrew by Nathan Englander, Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 208 pages, $14 (paperback)
“‘Tell me a story,’ the bearded man sitting on my living room sofa commands.” So begins Etgar Keret’s new collection, for in the title story the narrator is trapped − held prisoner in his home by three unwelcome guests, each of whose arrival is preempted by the phrase, “suddenly, there’s a knock on the door.” They all demand that their host conjure up a tale for them, and they’re not planning on going anywhere until he does. One of the three, especially desperate for a diversion, appeals to the narrator with the claim that in the Middle East, “things are tough you know. Unemployment, suicide bombings, Iranians.”
The narrator makes a wry reference to other Israeli writers, thinking to himself, “I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman.” Finally, he decides to create a story centered on someone who hasn’t written for a while, who “misses the feeling of creating something out of something.” He is careful to make a distinction between this and creating something out of nothing, in which “you make something up out of thin air, in which case it has no value,” and explains to us that “something out of something means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover it as part of something new.”
But he can’t seem to come up with any stories that don’t include the phrase “suddenly there’s a knock on the door” − which drives his captors crazy. Just as they finally agree to let him use these words, the story abruptly ends, and we are catapulted into the 34 other, unrelated stories that comprise the bulk of the book.
A sense of wonder and discovery pervades the stories in this new collection, Keret’s first book (originally published in Hebrew in 2010) since his 2008 collection of previously published stories, “The Girl on the Fridge.” Despite the similarities to his other works − with their singular blend of the fantastical and familiar, the nostalgic yet new − this collection feels darker and more mature than some of his previous work. Keret still uses the absurd and inventive to great effect, but in this collection there is a greater focus on characters fantasizing about living a different existence, whether they are contemplating on their death bed the possibilities of a universe of infinite dimensions or imagining alternate realities during their day-to-day lives.
In “Lieland,” one of the collection’s standout stories, we meet a man so used to telling lies − be they about an ill aunt or an injured dog he found hurt by the side of the road − that he has made the act of prevarication part of his everyday life. Prompted by a surreal dream, upon waking he decides to return to the childhood scene of his first lie, to search for the stone under which he hid his mother’s money, though at the time he told her he had been mugged by a “giant, redheaded kid.” After he lifts up the stone to find “a hole the width of a grapefruit, and a light shining out of it,” he reaches in, twists the handle he finds at the bottom and is catapulted into a place described as an “infinite white surface,” where he is immediately attacked by the same red-haired boy he dreamed up as a child, who informs him smilingly, “I’m your first lie.”
As he encounters more and more of his made-up past in real life, along with other people’s lies (for this world is not exclusively populated by his own falsehoods), we come to consider a deeper meaning among the absurd: the concept that our seemingly innocuous actions could have an unknown effect on another realm, a realm that in this case turns out to be a world of lies.
The concept of a sort of interconnectedness of everything in the world continues in “Cheesus Christ,” set in a fast-food restaurant. From its first line, this chaotic tale grabs our attention: “Have you ever wondered what word is most frequently uttered by people about to die a violent death?” (Hint: It has four letters, and begins with an “F.”) Here, as in all his stories, Keret tends to write in a conversational tone, which is occasionally interrupted by unexpected revelations and flashes of striking prose that have added potency when read in counterpart to his generally chatty style. A character who has been stabbed by a madman in an unprovoked attack, for example, lies somewhat pathetically on the restaurant’s floor, as “the life leaked out of him like chocolate milk from a punctured carton.” And at the end of the story, we are reminded of the notion of cause and its possible effect, as a “butterfly fluttered its wings. Somewhere on the other side of the world, evil winds began to blow.”
Trying not to fall
In “Parallel Universes,” which essentially consists of the dying thoughts of a man comforting himself by imagining billions of theoretical universes in which he may still be leading a happy life, Keret uses repetition and pacing to devastating effect, echoing the fading breaths and last moments of the narrator: “My eyes begin to shut now. Not just in that universe, in bed, in the woods, but in the other universes too, the ones that I don’t want to think about. I enjoy knowing there’s one place, in the heart of the woods, where I’m falling asleep happy.”
The concept of an alternate reality is also explored in “Bad Karma,” in which an insurance agent who has emerged from six weeks in a coma describes that altered state as the pleasurable “absence of memory,” explaining that “the nothingness was more intense than anything that had ever happened before, as if all the background noises had disappeared and the only sound left was true and pure and beautiful to the point of tears.”
Keret frequently focus on themes of loss and loneliness, accentuated by a pervading sense of the characters’ sense of yearning, be it for company, love or a different life. Though it’s not really clear why so many of his characters are slightly pathetic, it is easy for the reader to identify with aspects of their suffering, and the unusual combination of dark topics and the gentle tone of his humor is a formula that has worked well for him so far. The protagonist of “Healthy Start,” for instance, is feeling lonely following the breakup of his marriage. One day, during one of his usual lonely visits to a cafe, he is mistaken for someone else, but, hungry for conversation, he decides not to correct the person who approaches him. Eventually, he finds himself doing the same with every person who enters the cafe for a meeting with someone they have never seen before.
Despite the somber subject matter, Keret remains as playful as ever. In “Unzipping,” characters are “revealed” in a far more literal manner, as a woman who discovers a zipper under her boyfriend’s tongue, and pulls at it until he “opened up like an oyster,” to find another, completely different man inside. At the end of the story we find her considering her own zipper: “Ella fingered it hesitantly, and imagined what she’d be like inside.”
In “Joseph,” an account of “the conversations that can change a person’s life,” one of the characters confesses his fears of being empty inside, saying “that’s what scares me, looking into myself and finding nothing there.” But Keret gives us little time to contemplate this, forcing his readers to confront the reality of Israeli life with one short sentence, as the narrator describes a “sweaty man in a coat” who has just walked into the cafe, and matter-of-factly states: “It’s the first time in my life that I see a suicide bomber.” Despite a feeling that this sudden non sequitur may be a trifle contrived, we are immediately reminded of the context of these stories, which despite presenting an inventive and unique take on the absurdities of everyday life, are, after all, written by an author who has grown up, and still lives, in Israel − a fragmented land full of contradictions and uncertainty. And what better place to inform these tales of magical realism than Israel, where the seemingly banal act of sitting in a cafe can have life-changing repercussions? After all, as we are reminded in the story, at times the difference between life and death depends on little more than “angle and distance.”
One of the collection’s most moving stories is “What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish?” Here we are introduced to a man who travels around the country, knocks on people’s doors with a video camera in hand and films them as he asks what they would wish for if they found a magical goldfish that could grant them three wishes. He plans to sell the finished film to a television channel “either as a film or as a bunch of vignettes, little cinematic corners.” When he knocks on the door of a man who is actually in possession of such a fish, events quickly take a sinister twist, after which we eventually realize that the pet owner’s main wish is “anything ... not to be alone.” As in the title story, this knock on the door gives us a glimpse of another life and functions as a portal to a new tale, and sometimes new insights.
These quirky and surreal, yet oddly touching, tales illustrate Keret’s true gift: that through the imaginative prose and bizarre darkness of the subject matter, we sense that it is possible to escape the mundane, to be taken to a world that is both sublime and shattering. Whether that world is one filled with lies or one that features an encounter with a talking goldfish or even just a neighborhood cafe, we are, like the characters he portrays, “clutching its tail tightly, trying not to fall.”
Yasmin Kaye is a writer and translator living in Tel Aviv.