Book Review: The Adventurous Stories of Etgar Keret — Home Invasion, Israeli Style

The stories of Israeli writer Etgar Keret are diverse, one-of-a-kind safety nets, spun out of humor, tenderness, and wild imaginings.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret. Translated from the Hebrew by Nathan Englander, Miriam Shlesinger, and Sondra Silverston. FSG Originals, 208 pages, $14.

Co-sponsored by Israeli Stage, Etgar Keret will read at Brookline Booksmith this Saturday, April 28th at 7 p.m.

By Harvey Blume

Etgar Keret writes short, sometimes tiny, stories in colloquial, loose-jointed, and according to some, vulgar Hebrew. One tale in his new collection—”The Story, Victorious II”—lasts for but a single sentence, though it serves as a sort of footnote to the lengthier tale that precedes it, “The Story, Victorious,” which stretches out to two pages. That story in turn is one of the few in which Keret considers his own place in literature, by reference to places he does not happen to occupy. “The Story, Victorious,” he tells us, is not like Chekhov or Kafka, for example, because, for one thing, it starts by guaranteeing a happy ending. If you read it correctly, you get a Mazda Lantis. If you read it wrongly, you get a cheaper car.

Keret doesn’t concern himself with the literary critical question of how to distinguish correct from incorrect readings. Instead he preens, “This story is a unique Israeli innovation. And I bet you’re asking yourselves, how is that we (tiny little Israel) composed it, and not the Americans? What you should know is that the Americans are asking themselves the same thing.”

There’s nothing particularly vulgar about “The Story, Victorious” or its footnote, unless you think winning a Mazda for reading a story is all the vulgarity you need. For something more decidedly vulgar, you might want to skip to “Hemorrhoid,” which starts by saying, “This is the story of a man who suffered from a hemorrhoid” and changes its mind shortly to assert, “This is the story of a hemorrhoid that suffered from a man.” True, the swelling in question is not an ordinary hemorrhoid. It’s so increasingly savvy about business that the man learns to listen to it the “way others listen to their conscience.” Finally, the hemorrhoid sits atop a major company, profiting “shareholders all over the world.”

The man/hemorrhoid role reversal is cute, maybe too cute. This is not one of my favorite stories. Keret has said that in daily life he is a bit of a control freak, whereas writing for him is like a trust fall, in which you let yourself keel over backward hoping your partner will catch you. In “Hemorrhoid,” it seems to me, his partner has absconded, and Keret lands—sorry—right on his ass. But that’s unusual. Keret’s stories almost always catch him. They are diverse, one-of-a-kind safety nets, spun out of humor, tenderness, and wild imaginings. When they fail, they fail like shtick, like Saturday Night Live skits that don’t know when to quit. They don’t often fail.

In his low-brow, improv, trust-fall style, Keret doesn’t seem concerned much with precedent; he’s neither a Kafka nor a Chekov wannabe. But he’s fantastically popular in Israel.

I know it’s a mistake to try to reduce the adventurous mind of Keret to any one rubric, but if I were going to make that mistake, I’d say the rubric is this: home invasion, home invasion Israeli style, not suicide bombers, just a bunch of other Israelis.



  1. Fred Owens on April 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Didn’t Norman Mailer often consult his liver? So Keret talks with a hem — I can’t spell it — a growth on his internal organs.

    I am so glad that a short very short story teller is celebrated in Israel. I hope he becomes popular here too — but then Israel might be more suited for such short stories — they don’t have a lot of room.

  2. Harvey Blume on April 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Did mailer consult his liver? Perhaps. But then he was a drinker. Prometheus & *his* liver, well, that’s another story. (Hard to imagine a Greek god titan or hero consulting much less turning into a hemorrhoid)

    The god in one of the Keret stories—”pick a color”—kvetches about not being ominipotent:

    “What do you think. . . that I created all of you like this because it’s what I wanted? Because I’m some kind of pervert or sadist who enjoys all this suffering? I created you like this because this is what I know. It’s the best I can do.”

    • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on May 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      I have read Suddenly, A Knock on the Door and I share the TLS reviewer’s see-saw attitude about Keret’s “frequently annoying and occasionally great stories,” which are “often little more than extended jokes or riffs on Twilight Zone-like material.”

      Critical references to Kafka or Chekhov are overblown — one senses in the sometimes radical loneliness of his typical male protagonist (women are present, but they are usually marginal) a standard vehicle for the punishment (satiric/sympathetic) of male isolation — the fantasy elements, while amusing (the talking goldfish) exhaust the mystery of the stories.

      That said, there are some fine pieces here — perhaps a best-of collection in translation will serve Keret better in the long run because it will separate the wheat from the chaff.

      • Harvey Blume on May 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm

        >. . . “often little more than extended jokes or riffs on Twilight Zone-like material.”

        i wd have sd — in fact did say — snl type material. maybe snl meets the twilight zone. lorne michaels meets rod serling: imagine that! where do they meet? on broadway or in the negev?

        i will go back to wondering how Keret wd deal with longer forms. not that he has too. but if he tried he wd not be able to fly beneath the radar of the Big Issues.

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