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.