Etgar Keret’s new collection of short stories comes with preview plaudits from Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Safran Foer, Clive James, Amos Oz and others. It’s his first collection for ten years – his prev 5 collections were bestsellers and translated into 29 languages. He’s been published in NYT, Le Monde, The Guardian, Paris Review and others, and his first film as director won the Camera D’Or at Cannes in 2007. This new collection is out on 23Feb on Chatto. They’re a little too much like modern parables for my personal taste, but he certainly has many fans.
Suddenly A Knock on the Door – Etgar Keret.
Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston and Nathan Englander.
Chatto and Windus £12.99
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
In an important month for Isreali writers, Nathan Englander’s new short story collection and Etgar Keret’s first volume of short stories for ten years are published in the UK within weeks of each other. Englander was one of the three translators of Keret’s book and, like his, Keret’s volume arrives with praise from many of literature’s greats, including Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Keret’s stories are characterised by a relative disregard for realism in favour of an emphasis on symbolism. They often have the bizarre feel of dreams, featuring figures from the characters’ imagination or their past. Sometimes there is a lesson in the tale, either overt or latent, at others, the story reflects the society in which we – and especially, those in the Middle East – live.
In the title story, a typically absurd situation arises when a man is forced at gunpoint in his own home to relate a story to three strangers. Wisdom permeates the ridiculous as one of the aggressors explains that in the Middle East, force is more effective than peaceful requests: ‘The Palestinians asked for a state, nicely. Did they get one? Like hell they did. So they switched to blowing up children on buses, and people started listening.’
Lieland sees a compulsive liar faced with the effects of his untruths. Shut features a man who doesn’t appreciate his family. He’ll find out, too late, that he should have valued it. Healthy Start is one of the fables with a clear moral. A man whose partner has left him longs for company. In typical inexplicable Keretian fashion, strangers start joining him at his breakfast cafe, mistaking him for someone they know, and he plays along, only to realise that sometimes company and being someone else are not as rosy as imagined. In Unzipped, a woman peels away the outer surface of her boyfriend to reveal an ex who looks more attractive but turns out to be a pain – the grass is always greener.
Keret’s ridiculous set-ups can be funny. In Cheesus Christ, the causes and consequences of a chain of events are examined with a tragi-comically wry eye. Underlying the chaos, a lesson may be imagined – don’t let your happiness depend on other people’s actions because their behaviour may be wholly unrelated to you. The beauty is the subtlety of any educational motive – the interpretation is up to the individual.
Reading these short fables one after the other can become trying because of the lack of character development, human interaction, or plot. Some may baulk at a writer’s self perception as a pedagogue, passing on wisdom. One of Keret’s own characters, in describing the book he would like to write, comes close to describing his creator’s work: ‘Something between an educational fable and a philosophical treatise.’
For this reason, this reader’s personal favourites are the tales that show Keret’s interest in humanity via realistic situations, such as the painfully poignant Teamwork, in which a divorced man with restricted access to his beloved son has to tackle a tricky situation without jeopardizing his access, or The Polite Little Boy, in which a small boy is tragically caught between warring parents.