Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Review: "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door" by Etgar Keret


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.

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. 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 shortly changes its mind to assert: "This is the story of a hemorrhoid that suffered from a man". True, the swelling in question is not an ordinary pustule. 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. According to one source (Ben Naparstek in Tikkun,
http://www.tikkun.org/article.php?story=Keret-Interview): "His books are the most stolen volumes from Israeli bookstores, and he's the most widely read writer in prisons." To explain this appeal, critics go for broke. A New York Times reviewer hauled in Bruno Bettelheim in re symbolic narratives and “the uses of enchantment,” to account for Keret.

Be that as it may, Keret's currency can't but occasion comparisons to the likes of David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, and Amos Oz, his great forebears in Israeli literature. For them, the very existence of a Jewish State was and remains problematic, to be turned this way and that, wrestled over. That's not the case for Keret, who was born in 1967. This doesn't imply he's unmindful of the problems that beset Israel — he's made it clear, on many occasions, that's far from the case — only that he doesn't feel his stories need be instruments for inculcating and instructing. Still, his works — four published books — are all short form. They dart, brilliantly. But I wonder, if he ever took up the novel, how he would come to terms with the big old bad issues, as he might have to. Or is that why he has not written a novel?

My real cue to Keret has nothing to do with any of this. It comes from an Israeli friend, who returning to Israel after some years in the United States, complained that Israelis were always getting in each other's business, and that in short, there was no privacy. As she put it, "they always have an opinion to air, even when not asked for one." She was not amused.

Sounds like the title story, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, the name of which serves as keynote to many other stories. In Pudding, for example, the main character finds, one day, for no reason, "a pair of thugs banging at his door." Where they take him — back home, back all the way to childhood — is the substance of the story, which starts with thugs at the door.

Try Simyon which begins: "Two people were standing at the door." Try What, of This Goldfish, Would you Wish? one of the finest tales. It begins: "Yonatan had a brilliant idea for a documentary. He'd knock on doors." (Check out where that gets him.) Try Bad Karma, in which it's not literally someone at your door or in your face: it's worse; it's someone falling on your head. That collision puts you in a coma, which gives you some relief from everyone, though you are ashamed to say so later. If hell is other people, this coma, for Oshri, is a furtive memory of heaven. "He remembered the colors and the taste and the fresh air cooling his face. He remembered the absence of memory, the sense of existing without a name and without a history, in the present."

I know it's a mistake to try to reduce the adventurous mind of Etgar 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, who crash into your life, with unexpected

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