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The Maturation of Etgar Keret

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“A man is sitting in the room, all by himself. He’s lonely. He’s a writer. He wants to write a story. It’s been a long time since he wrote his last story, and he misses it… The man decides to write a story about the situation. Not the political situation and not the social situation either. He decides to write a story about the human situation, the human condition. The human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now.”

This candid, semi-autobiographical admission, taken from the title tale of Etgar Keret’s stunning new collection of short stories, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, encapsulates the tenor of much of the best of Keret’s short fiction: The striving to chronicle the human situation, to get beyond the partisan politics, anger, and fear of the contemporary Middle East even while struggling (knowingly struggling) within those constraints.

In a 2006 interview with The Believer, when he was asked a particularly loaded question, Keret virtually said as much:

“Linda Grant,” the interviewer asked, or, perhaps, opined, “who had been living in Israel for four months…painted a very different picture of Israel from the one we get on CNN. She wrote of claustrophobia, defeat and powerlessness, of complete disillusion with the Zionist dream… When I went back to read your stories, I felt something similar.”

Keret, instead of calling out Grant on her self-righteous naïveté (she had been in Israel for four whole months), or her simplistic understanding of what it is like to truly live in and be a conscientious citizen of Israel, responded by pointing to the essential smallness of Grant’s argument:
I think that any authentic feeling one has of life should be a feeling of defeat. It’s a losing game. You’re going to die. Civilization is going to end. Our society is in decline, and we should feel OK about it because Roman society was in decline and before it the Assyrian one was, and they disappeared off this earth and we will disappear too… Many of the problems in Israel are not unique regional problems. They’re widespread human problems that in Israel are kind of extreme.
This is what makes Keret’s stories so uniquely powerful, so powerfully unique. The extreme right-nowness of the human condition in his stories is exacerbated and amplified by the Israeli backdrop, always present even if not always explicitly acknowledged. Far from losing himself in the terrible uniqueness of the Israeli situation, he uses that situation to explore and enlighten our essential human character.

Keret, who is in his forties, is probably the preeminent Israeli writer of his generation, a group too young to see the birth and the early years of the state with their own eyes, old enough to witness the dissolution of much their elders had come to believe in. He is certainly not your average Israeli fiction writer. He made his name by writing very short, often proto-fantastical stories with a whimsical yet often tragic tone. These can be three or four page stories that leave you heartbroken, stunned, or reaching for the box of tissues. It is a style he may or may not have created, but one that he has certainly perfected.

Keret’s quirky fictions quickly attracted a large audience in his native Israel. His stories generally stay away from the Arab-Israeli conflict. His characters – the child who falls in love with his piggy bank and sets it free, so as not to have to break it and retrieve his money; the man who buys a how-to-succeed-in-business book and receives, instead, a book teaching him to swim like a dolphin; the man who pushes a self-declared winged angel off a building to see if it can fly, only to watch him (the angel) rapidly fall to his death – while both intensely local and universal, seem somehow removed from what Israelis call hamatzav, the ever-present, all-encompassing situation. The world of the West Bank and Gaza, of Lebanon and Iran, not to mention the world of secular-religious in-fighting, could be a million miles away.

Most of Keret’s stories take place in or around Tel Aviv, on the sliver of land closest to the Mediterranean that feels most “normal,” most untouched (usually) by the constant war and threat of terrorism – of the man next to you exploding and killing you in the process – that is omnipresent in some other areas of the culture. Keret’s soldiers, if they exist at all, are more likely to be what Israelis semi-derisively call jobnikkim, which has no literal English translation but most closely approximates to gophers, men and women who see no real action, who spend the bulk of their military service in military office buildings, often in the heart of the country, staffing canteens or fixing computers.

Keret himself spent a good chunk of his three years of compulsory military service in a basement, fixing computers that for the most part didn’t break, biding time until his military service was over. It was there, as Keret tells it, in the basement where he spent his military service with his best friend (a computer programmer who had gotten him the cushy, mindless job), that that friend, who suffered from depression, from an oversensitivity to the pointlessness of life, killed himself. Keret was in the next room. It was there, two weeks later, that Keret wrote his first story. “Pipes” is a tale of a man who feels he isn’t fit for this world. He builds a pipe that leads him to a sort of heaven, populated not by people who were good (“God is too merciful and kind to make a decision like that”), but by others who feel they were not fit to live on earth.

Pipelines, the book containing Keret’s first story, was published in Israel in 1992. Three more books of short stories followed over the next ten years. A chronically vibrant outpouring (perhaps the better word is explosion) of work, almost a hundred and fifty stories in all, most which have been published in English in the collections The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, The Nimrod Flipout, Missing Kissinger, and The Girl on the Fridge.

These stories, like “Pipes,” are almost all very short, sometimes two or three pages, sometimes one, sometimes only a paragraph. The issues they deal with sometimes skirt Jewish history, Jewish memory, the Holocaust, hamatzav, but they never exactly touch it. “Siren,” perhaps Keret’s most famous story within his native Israel (it is required reading in Israeli high schools), available in English in both The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Four Stories, is a good representative example. In “Siren,” the narrator, a high school senior, tattles on a more popular, successful, virile classmate for stealing the bicycle of the school’s janitor, an old Holocaust survivor. The popular boy finds out, and corners the narrator behind the school:
I wanted to get away from there, to run, raise my hands to protect my face, but fear paralyzed me. Then suddenly, out of nowhere came the sound of the siren. I’d completely forgotten that it was Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers.
The narrator’s nemesis, along with the rest of the Jews in the country, stand at attention while the siren wails. Not the narrator, though:
I walked to the hole in the fence and stepped through slowly and quietly… I went on walking home through the streets with all the frozen people looking like wax dummies, the sound of the siren surrounding me with an invisible shield.
The siren – the official, legitimate, state-mandated manners of mourning, of remembrance – is what Keret continually questions in his stories, what he continually forces his readers to rethink. The boy who steals from a Holocaust survivor also obediently, without thinking, without being watched or told, stands at attention for the memory of the fallen soldiers of his country – a country that was created in part to ensure their would never be a second Holocaust. The story of what Israel is, what it could be, and what it should be is told more fluently in this five-page story of two high school kids than in most other hundred-odd paged novels or works of sociology.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is Keret’s latest collection of short stories. Published in Israel in 2010, and released in English this year, the collection shows a real maturation, while at the same time evoking a pleasant and perhaps necessary return to form.

And it is a return, in that between 2002 and 2010 Keret did not publish a single stand-alone collection of short stories. Not that he wasn’t busy. He wrote comic and children’s books and co-authored a collection with a Palestinian author, Samir El-Youssef. He also wrote and directed or co-directed a number of films, including the beautiful and whimsical $9.99, based on a number of his early stories. But for Keret, who published over a hundred stories in his first decade on the literary scene, a second decade without a single stand-alone collection seemed (was, in fact) too long.

What happened? Keret claims that life happened. He married, had a child, settled into a liberal upper-middle-class existence (as much of a upper-middle-class existence as a hyper-famous author can settle into in a country where authors are treated more like movie stars than twentieth century relics). This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Keret’s growing American fan base, as it gave his publisher and translators (particularly the fabulous Miriam Shlesinger, who has translated the bulk of his work into English) the time and opportunity to catch up and translate many of the stories from Keret’s earlier collections. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, his first book of stories to be released in America, was published in 2001. Five books of translated stories rapidly followed, culminating in Suddenly.

In any case, Keret was busy.

And it shows. While the protagonists of his earlier stories were likely to be about children or teenagers (like the protagonist in “Pipes”), or young lovers who would as soon contemplate jumping off a roof as settling down and having kids, the stories in Suddenly largely revolve around aging couples, parents with children, miserable husbands and wives (or, in some cases, ex-husbands and wives), men obsessed not with scoring attractive mates for a night but with the stock market, particularly with the rise and fall of the Israeli stocks on NASDAQ. Keret has grown up.

I almost cannot believe I am making this reference – one that would be quite unthinkable from a reading of any of Keret’s earlier, more juvenile-centric works, but reading these stories, I was repeatedly reminded of the middle-class malaise of John Updike. Not that any of these tales would feel at home in the world of Updike’s Rabbit. To be sure, many of the characters in these stories feel existential angst at the monotony or the depressions of monogamy and the nine-to-five workday. But, even when they don’t live in a fantastical world – a meta-Tel-Aviv where men just as easily turn into dolphins as confront their cheating spouses – the characters use their own imaginative powers (powers instilled in them by their imaginative creator) to help them understand and work through the messes they’ve got themselves in.

“Creative Writing,” possibly the finest story in this collection, is a prime example. The story begins with a character writing a story:
The first story Maya wrote was about a world in which people split themselves in two instead of reproducing. In that world, every person could, at any given moment, turn into two beings, each one half his/her age… The heroine of Maya’s story was splitless. She had reached the age of eighty and, despite constant social pressure, insisted on not splitting. At the end of the story, she died.
Only later does the reader discover that Maya wrote this story for a creative writing class she had enrolled in in response to losing her first child in a miscarriage. Throughout the story, Maya communicates her true feelings, her passions and misunderstandings that cannot somehow be conveyed in oral language, through these fantastic stories. The intended recipient, perhaps, is Maya’s busy, distant businessman husband. At the story’s end, the husband composes a story of his own:
The story he wrote was about a fish that was swimming happily along in the sea when a wicked witch turned it into a man… The fish kept doing better and better, until one day, when he was really old, he looked out the window of one of the dozens of huge shoreline buildings he’d purchased in a smart real-estate deal, and saw the sea. And suddenly he remembered that he was a fish. A very rich fish who controlled many subsidiary companies that were traded on stock markets around the world, but still a fish. A fish who, for years, had not tasted the salt of the sea.
Keret’s characters have the fantastic ability to retreat from their own world to create their own meta-stories in order to try to make sense of, or at the very least deal with, their often senseless surroundings. It is a trait they share with Keret himself. The strong, rapid prose and overarching themes of misplacement in “Creative Writing” echo the best stories of Keret’s earlier collections. His focus on the discomfort and trauma of married life, however, is both new and welcome.

As surprising as it is to witness Keret’s turn toward the life of the (externally) staid middle-class family, the move from viewing the world from the eyes of the deluded child to seeing it from the perspective of the just as deluded adult, this subtle shift in focus is not what strikes me most about these stories. What surprised (and, indeed, frightened) me most about these new stories, is how directly a number of them deal with hamatzav.

Take, for example, that truly fantastic title story, which serves both as an acknowledgment of how long Keret has been gone (for Israelis, if not for us) and as a hint at his new narrative persona. The story begins in medias res:
“Tell me a story,“ the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands. The situation, I must say, is anything but pleasant. I’m someone who writes stories, not someone who tells them. And even that isn’t something I do on demand. The last time anyone asked me to tell him a story, it was my son…But the situation [in Hebrew: hamatzav] is fundamentally different. Because my son doesn’t have a beard, or a pistol. Because my son asked for the story nicely, and this man is simply trying to rob me of it.

I try to explain to the bearded man that if he puts his pistol away it will only work in his favor, in our favor. It’s hard to think up a story with the barrel of a loaded pistol pointed at your head. But the guy insists. ”In this country,“ he explains, “if you want something, you have to use force.”
The striking power of these sentences is nothing but Keret at his best. Every word, every phrase, is packed with meaning. One could easily write a lengthy essay about the first paragraph alone. Suffice it to say that the phrase hamatzav here is used intentionally, that West Bank settlers stereotypically have beards, and that there are some obvious larger overtones to this story (also, that some people were very upset about the length between this collection of stories and Keret’s last work).

As the story progresses, more people come to hijack the narrator, to force him to tell a story. “I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman,” he says. Those two writers (who happen to both be favorites of mine, though for very different reasons) would never have this happen in their stories, either.

To my mind, this is Keret’s most explicit fictional acknowledgment of his country’s unique narrative to date. Still, it ends with both hope and desperation, at the beginning of a new story. The narrator wants to integrate the terrorists into a story, to give the story the flavor of the human condition. They resist. Finally, one of them accedes to his demand:

“You want a knock on the door?” the terrorist says. “Okay, have your knock on the door. Just so long as it brings us a story.”

The terrorists, in their many forms, remain inside, haunting Keret’s narrator, haunting Keret. They are part of the land, part of what it means to live and write in Israel. They are part of what makes Keret a superb writer. There is a knock at the door. Keret invites them in.

If these stories are fuller, more mature, than what came before, they also, I think, lose something in the explicit fictional acknowledgment of the external world. There was something nice, something calming, about picking up The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and knowing that you would not encounter a terrorist. Even when the suicide bomb is in the background, lurking in the subtext of the story, the bomber himself is never front and center. In some of these stories – one of which involves a man who narrowly misses being killed by the suicide bomber who explodes feet away from him, killing the waitress who just served him – Keret has seemed to let the world of his daily life inch a bit closer to the surface in the pages of his fictions. It is a step, to be sure, that is both traumatizing and powerful, and Keret, being Keret, does explicit terror well in the instances he chooses to do so. I wonder, though, whether explicating the problems he so adeptly sidestepped, and thereby magnified, is a step in the right direction.

Still, cumulatively these stories only make up a small percentage of this new collection. When they do appear, they for the most part succeed as powerful and meaningful fiction. In any case, the Keret that keeps things a bit below the surface, always ready to but never entirely showing themselves, is still present in the bulk of these fictions.

Not all of Keret’s stories succeed. Suddenly, like most of the books that came before it, contains a few duds. Some, like “The Story, Victorious,” about the best story ever written (hint: it’s the one you’re reading), are too precious for their own good. But in the best of the stories in his new collection, the mature Keret hits a stride that matches or exceeds the best of his previous work. “Guava,” a three page story, starts, like “Suddenly,” in the midst of the action:

“There was no sound from the engines of the plane. There were no sounds at all. Except perhaps the soft crying of the flight attendants a few rows behind him.” Shkedi, the protagonist, is on a crashing plane. He is about to die. “‘Just don’t crash,’ Shkedi said. ‘Just don’t crash.’”

But wait. This is an Etgar Keret story.

“Forty seconds before Shkedi expired, an angel appeared, all dressed in white, and told him he’d been awarded a last wish.”

Shkedi wishes for peace on earth. The angel grants his wish. Meanwhile, Shkedi dies, and is reincarnated into a guava.
People beat their swords into plowshares and nuclear reactors soon began to be used for peaceful purposes. But none of this was of any comfort to the guava. Because the tree was tall and the ground seemed distant and painful. Just don’t crash, the guava shuddered wordlessly, just don’t crash.
This is the human condition. This is living in our flawed, imperfect, beautiful world. Keret gets it. And he conveys it in stories with an inventiveness and power unmatched in Israel, or anywhere else for that matter.

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