Yesterday at the ophthalmologist I realized my eye doctor was looking deep into my eyes but couldn’t see me; not at all. My husband compulsively takes the same photograph over and over again unaware that no picture looks different from any other. My son has mastered the subtle art of walking through the world invisible, the result of years of school torment for speech that occasionally faltered. It is this sort of horrifying flash of recognition that occasionally bursts forth into our consciousness that Etgar Keret mines into short story gold in “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $14.00, translated from the Hebrew by Nathan Englander, Miriam Shlesinger, and Sondra Silverston). He has been doing this for several years in Israel to great acclaim. Keret has authored six very successful short story collections; some of which are now required reading in literature for Israeli high school seniors.
Keret lives in an alternative universe where one’s subjective reality reigns supreme. His brief short stories, most no more than a few brief pages, send you tumbling into a maze that seems to have no center—which seems to be Keret’s main point. How do we find meaning in a world so arbitrary and precarious? Where can one still find a shred of hope? What is the point of all this madness? Yet his absurdist narratives are laced with a morality and emotional compassion that is often unsettling. If you are brave enough, he offers up nothing less than a religious conversion of sorts. You are simply not the same person after reading him.
Keret is the youngest son of Holocaust survivors. His mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto, but lost her entire family. His father managed to survive by hiding in a hole in the ground for 600 days. His two older siblings have taken widely divergent paths—his sister turned Orthodox and is the mother of 11 children. His brother is a peace activist and proponent for the legalization of marijuana. Keret speaks with palpable emotion about his father in interviews. He credits his father for inspiring him to do something special with his life and for teaching him not to succumb to fear. And Keret does that over and over again in his stories; he confronts hopelessness and finds the faintest flicker of hope, just as his father did.
In “The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God,” a magnificent story from an earlier collection, Keret tells us about a bus driver who refused to open the door for any passenger who arrived at his bus stop late. It did not matter if he was at a red light. Or if the lady was pregnant or sick or carrying a stroller filled with screaming kids. He simply refused to open the door and believed himself to be following some sort of moral code that dictated he treat all of his passengers equally, regardless of the their circumstances. There was a guy named Eddie who rode his bus every day—a pathetic young man who already seemed to have given up on most of what life has to offer. One day, Eddie was walking to the bus stop with a certain skip in his step, since he was about to meet a girl at the mall who would never show up, but Eddie did not know that yet. Still, he was running late. The bus driver saw him in his rear view mirror struggling to make the bus and decided to wait for him. The other passengers shouted for the bus driver to keep moving, since they were accustomed to his rigid rule, but the bus driver refused to move. Something about Eddie touched the driver in a way nothing had in a long time. Eddie “reminded the driver of something-something from the past, from a time even before he wanted to become a bus driver, when he still wanted to become God. It was a sad memory because the bus driver didn’t become God in the end, but it was a happy one too, because he was a bus driver, which was his second choice. “ Eddie stepped onto the bus, and the bus driver gave him a sad wink. Eddie would remember that small gesture the entire day, even when the girl didn’t show up and even when the next one didn’t either.
In “Alternative,” from “The Girl on the Fridge” collection, Keret’s narrator writes about wondering what his girlfriend is thinking about while she performs fellatio on him. He asks her and she tells him “Nothing.” Keret writes, “I’ve always asked myself what girls think about when they’re doing it. Not suicide, the sex thing. It bothers me. I always used to think that they thought it was supposed to bum them out, to humiliate them. I hoped that, if I could get inside her head, everything would be different. I’d get some kind of insight. Different my ass. This isn’t why I became a writer.”
In “One Kiss on the Mouth in Mombasa,” from “Nimrod Flipout,” Keret’s storyteller is haunted by a story his fiancée tells him. It was about a guy she once met on a trip to Mombasa, where she was hanging out and doing drugs after completing her army service. The guy would look at her a lot but say little, and when he did approach her and she told him she was unavailable, he moved away gently, asking only for a kiss. He said he had been watching her for weeks imagining this kiss, and she consented and then returned to Israel. What bothered him wasn’t that she kissed him; it wasn’t that at all. It was thinking about the other man’s relentless desire for her; his ability to spend hours thinking about her and longing for her and then begging her politely for just one soft kiss. He was jealous at what this man was able to feel for someone else, feelings he himself could never conjure for anyone, not even himself.
Keret’s new collection, “Suddenly, A Knock On The Door,” is edgy and slightly different in tone. Keret is now 46, married and the father of one young son. The new stories seem to echo with the escalating tensions of modern family life. Many of them focus on the vulnerability of young children caught between warring parents. Yet, Keret’s writing process is primarily the same; it is the subject matter that has shifted. Keret explains he generally begins all of his stories with a shocking visual image that gets stuck in his mind and then allows the narrative to flow from there. The stories here are filled with husbands and fathers attempting to understand the emotional minefields that exist in every family, rather than the young and alienated slacker males that populate his early work.
The title story is especially memorable. It is about a writer named Keret who hears frantic banging at the front door and is assaulted by a Swede who has just immigrated to Israel and who demands to be told a story since he is convinced that in Israel you can only get what you want by force. Two other strangers come by issuing the same odd request. They want to hear something original, and they want to hear it right now. For once, Keret is speechless. In another wonderful story, “Lieland,” a man grapples with the horrifying actuality of having every lie he has ever told since childhood become a reality.
Even with the grown-up Keret, you can always feel the faint rumblings of a man with desires to flee everything that engulfs him. You can still feel the raw scars that resulted from being thrust into the Israel Army at the tender age of 18. Keret himself has spoken in interviews about his horrific experiences in the army, where his closest friend took his own life, leaving Keret with an inconsolable sense of loss that prompted him soon after to begin writing. Keret doesn’t hold back from his negative feelings about army service, and the corrosive effect he felt it had on his being. He once said “You don’t always know it, but lines that you don’t pass, you pass them all the time in Israel…When you’re 18, you’re taken into the army, you kick doors down, you beat people, shoot people. Then you go home, and people say you are going to lead a normal life. But the moment your girlfriend doesn’t want to open the door, well, it’s not like you’ve never been in that situation before.” Keret brings all of this baggage to his new work and combines it with the confusions of adult life. The results are extraordinary.
Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal and other publications.