A Temporary Guest in the World

In his latest outing, Etgar Keret demonstrates how the short story is his playground - a platform of the anthropology of the absurd, the dream and the passion that he portrays.

Omri Herzog
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Omri Herzog

Pitom, Defika Badelet

(Suddenly, a Knock on the Door ), by Etgar Keret Kinneret Zemora-Bitan (Hebrew ), 179 pages, NIS 84

With his new short-story collection, "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door," Etgar Keret is once again the talk of the town. I have been witness to several conversations about him. They included admiration of his talent, of course; a Keret-style remark about the public relations assault that has accompanied the book's publication; and several complaints too. Two in particular: Why doesn't Keret write a novel rather than keeping on with the short stories - after all, it could be great if he would take the plunge; and another comment about the fact that the new book is meant from the outset for translation into foreign languages: It contains almost no "Israeliness," whatever that means (Humus? Military service? A comment on "the situation"? ); Keret is no longer one of us, and we feel somewhat betrayed - now he belongs to the world.

The collection includes 38 stories. In recent years few collections of original short stories have been published in Hebrew. Some say the genre itself is not sufficiently commercial, maybe because even in literature Israeli readers are seeking a place of refuge, where one can settle in and to which one can devote oneself, far from the madding crowd. Short stories - especially tales as short as Keret's - don't invite continuous reading. In fact, it would be a shame to read them all in one go, because they're liable to blend into one another. It's a good idea to read a few, go out into the world and then continue.

That's what Keret himself does: In the white space between the stories, he rests, before going out to revisit the world. He's not exactly there in the world, he's a temporary guest: a perpetual observer, an oppositionist, who watches playgrounds and office building lobbies, bedrooms and cars where those sitting inside are talking on their cell phones. He observes them and goes back to writing, where he reports on what he saw, or what he could have seen.

Author Etgar KeretCredit: Alon Ron

Plots that mock and deceive

The dark and occasionally even cruel aspect of his stories stems from the fact that Keret is interested in situations rather than characters. The characters are flat, functional. Although they populate the picture of the story, it's only in order to create the composition, where the emphasis is on the give and take between their body positions and the tension between them. That is why the short story is Keret's playground; it's a platform for the anthropology of the absurd, the dream and the passion that he portrays.

Writing a short story is a work of art: In its density it does not tolerate any free time nor is it capable of bearing the superfluous. With Keret, there is never a moment's pause and there is nothing extra. He has no obligations, in the liberating and creative sense of the concept; he enhances the art of the short story.

In this collection, more than in its predecessors, Keret plays with the short story's classical structure. His main points come in their proper order, but in many cases they appear strangulated, urgently trying to allude to some earlier point, which was skillfully camouflaged in the story or is located outside it - in other words, in the imagination of the readers who envision it. Many of the stories deal with a journey that the story abandons before it reaches its destination or crashes; with disrupted plans, acts of impersonation, dark forces that channel everything worthy and proper in an unexpected direction. The characters in the stories impersonate others, meet up with their lies, find themselves in an alternative, ironic and uncontrollable reality.

And so even the plot of the story itself becomes disrupted, and mocks and deceives: Keret places not only the characters in unexpected places, but the parts of the story as well: the introduction, the incident, the main point. These elements switch roles, impersonate one another, pull the ground out from under the readers. The successful book jacket, which was illustrated and designed by Avi Neeman, and portrays a man sleeping comfortably on a plane flying through smoke and fire, perhaps plummeting toward a crash, explains the secret of Keret's charm: The journey to the world does not end at its expected destination; the story does not sail toward a comfortable awakening or a safe landing.

Mazda raffle

In fact, the collection does not pay its debt to Israeliness, or to Israeli content, even if its Hebrew is extremely natural, and Keret is aware of that. "A Winning Story," which claims of itself that is the best story in the book, is "a unique Israeli invention," because a gunmetal-gray Mazda will be raffled off among those who read it correctly. And even readers who don't read it correctly will receive a prize, a somewhat cheaper car. Everyone profits, because "he's here so that you'll feel good," and if he stops doing good, that will be the end of him. And after a page and a half of national pride and prizes and a promise to be attentive to the feelings of the public, it really is the end of him. He has paid his debt and abandoned the provincial demand: He can give the window seat to various readers, not only Hebrew ones. He is not a national ambassador. Artists don't have to be.

But "Suddenly, a Knock at the Door" is far from ignoring reality. On the contrary: In the contemporary world, which is full of fast-food stalls and fast fantasies, the stories play around with the possibility of using your eyes and your imagination to the fullest, and identifying something entirely different behind the automatic cliche. There, behind everything that is clear and right, exists some other hidden and unexpected world, which we ordinarily don't have time or liberty to notice.

In the outstanding story "Cheesus Christ," each of the characters - the CEO of a fast-food chain, his Iraqi-exile doctor and the customer who orders a cheeseless cheeseburger - is a cause or object of the butterfly effect. The winds blow all over the world and the fate of each of these characters is not in his own hands, even when he has done something - whether minor or significant - intended to control that fate: ordering a hamburger or emigrating to another country. Pressing the keys of the computer can cause the world to be in an uproar, can fundamentally change people's lives, even on the other side of the world. It can expose the mask beneath the mask, disrupt everything that is safe or stable.

And when the plans are disrupted - as is inevitable - compassion appears as well; compassion for a civilization that can seemingly make everything come true and yet the fantasy is not enough, and always leaves hunger for more. In the story "Goldfish," the hero is forced to ask his goldfish to grant him a wish, although all he really wants is to keep the fish near him, because while the fish is waiting to hear the wish, the hero is speaking to it and the fish relieves his loneliness. Keret observes the short pictures of life and processes them in his imagination: They contain weakness, longing, missed opportunities and insatiable hunger. But with the mysterious suddenness of an unexpected knock on the door, they also reveal exposure to human emotion - forgiving and without flattery.

It is fascinating to open the door to Etgar Keret's stories, and it is also nice to know that so many people the world over are waiting for that knock on their door.

Literary critic Omri Herzog reviews books regularly for the Haaretz Hebrew book-review supplement.



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