Etgar Keret’s Chaos Theory
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door, the acclaimed Israeli writer’s new story collection, offers wry, coy looks at the paradoxes of life in the Jewish state
Etgar Keret likes to recall a dinner party when someone posed the question, “Are there any Hebrew words without an English equivalent?” The word that came to Keret’s mind was “balagan,” a word that translates into English as “total chaos,” but in Hebrew takes on a different meaning: a chaos that is overwhelming, amusing, even inspired. Balagan is a crowded outdoor market two hours before the stores close for Shabbat, an all-night beachside rave, or the Jerusalem bus station teeming with people in the late afternoon. It is a word that is more Israeli than it is Hebrew, and though there is a rough English translation, there is no true American equivalent.
Israel operates under the theory of trickle-down chaos. Order is undermined by random acts of terrorism and the arbitrary deaths of the very young. The government responds to the uncertainty with rigid internal structure: Teenagers don uniforms and accept guns when they turn 18, and checkpoints dot the highways. But the government cannot prevent terrorism or protect the teenagers they outfit with guns, so Israelis remain governed by a fear of the unknown. Unable to control their surroundings, they adapt, responding by being less concerned with the usual norms. Students and teachers strike at will, grocery store lines beg for a new word to describe disorder, and first-grade classrooms are a riotous mass of children, crayons, and noise. Chaos creeps into every aspect of Israeli life.
Keret, the 44-year-old best-selling Israeli writer (and Tablet magazine columnist), has made a career out of embracing balagan. He has dug his way into Israel’s national conscience and emerged with stories that are at once hilarious, heartbreaking, and totally absurd. Next week, Keret’s sixth collection of short stories, Suddenly, A Knock on the Door, will be published in English (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, and Nathan Englander). Drawing inspiration from Yiddish authors like Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote about the misery of living under the Czar’s regime by invoking half-fantastical people and places, Keret points out the deep inconsistencies of Israeli life through short, fable-like stories. Turning to the past while absorbing the peculiarities of the present, Keret has cultivated an authentic literary voice for Israel.
The newest collection opens in charming, self-conscious, Keret-fashion with “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door,” a tale of a writer named Keret being forced to tell a story at gunpoint to a motley crew of impatient listeners. Each time the writer begins, another weapon-wielding serviceman knocks on the door, until the living room is crowded with a bearded Swede, a young pollster, and a pushy pizza deliveryman, all clamoring for the writer’s life if he can’t stutter out a story. The writer implores them to leave, but they become only more demanding, begging for a story that will let them escape their current reality for just a few minutes.
Left with no choice, the writer begins:
A man is sitting in a room, all by himself. He’s lonely. He’s a writer. He wants to write a story. … He misses the feeling of creating something out of something. That’s right—something out of something. Because something out of nothing is when you make something up out of thin air, in which case it has no value. Anybody can do that. But something out of something means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover it as part of something new.
And so, Keret introduces us to his latest collection—marking his return to writing short fiction after a decade of producing other material, including children’s books, a novel, magazine work, a screenplay, graphic novels—and promising us a break from the strict order of reality. Starring characters who are unconventional misfits—a pathological liar who is transported to a land where his past lies have come true, a woman who unzips her boyfriend’s lip to find a new boyfriend living inside, a Russian immigrant whose best friend is a talking goldfish—the stories expand the breadth of Israel’s fictitious population and mark a notable break with the country’s literary tradition.
From the early 20th century through the 1960s, Israeli literature’s primary function was to reinforce the Zionist dream: the story of the native Israeli, or Sabra, working on a kibbutz or in the army and sacrificing personal desires for the collective good. “Hebrew literature played a critical role in the creation of a Zionist meta-narrative and the attainment of followers for the Zionist movement,” said Phillip Hollander, a Hebrew literature professor at the University of Wisconsin. Emblematic works like Moshe Samir’s novel He Walked Through the Fields—which tells the story of a Sabra killed in the army shortly after his new wife becomes pregnant—served as guidebooks for young Zionists, celebrating the hero who gives up his life for his country.
Beginning in the 1960s, a generation of novelists led by A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and Aharon Appelfeld emerged, who—while still Zionists—began to embrace characters outside of the mainstream: Sabras who resist army life, Sephardic protagonists, kibbutzim in turmoil. Even as the next generation of writers like David Grossman began to establish new literary modes for exploring difficult topics like the Holocaust with books like See Under: Love, the narratives they offered were still realist meditations on Israeli life.
Keret’s literary debut in the 1990s marked a notable break with the traditional mode of Israeli storytelling. Writing in conversational Hebrew and introducing characters that fell far outside of the mainstream, Keret was one of the first writers not only to write stories that had nothing to do with the political situation, but to poke fun at the social manifestations of political reality. Though some scholars like Hollander criticize Keret for what they call “skinny writing,” a mode of writing that incorporates spoken Hebrew and pop culture, Keret employs this style very intentionally.
“In many senses the modern-day writer is the secular equivalent of the priest or the pope,” Keret said by phone in English this month. “There are always serious writers that wear suits, speak quietly, and say important things about our lives, and I think that often this can have a sterilizing effect on the experience of writing.”
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated and a close friend of Keret’s, feels that it is precisely Keret’s insistent lightheartedness that makes him so admirable. “Hebrew is a very hard language to not make sound difficult,” Safran Foer said. “I took a class with Amos Oz once, and he said that trying to write in Hebrew is like trying to whisper in a cathedral. Etgar has learned to whisper.” And so, charting new territory on hallowed ground, Keret has created a voice for the younger generation, offering a way to explore the difficulties of not quite fitting in, and establishing a language to question the paradoxes of the narratives they inherited.
Born to a pair of Holocaust survivors and raised in a family where his sister became ultra-Orthodox and his brother became leader of a political party whose main platform was to legalize marijuana, Keret is familiar with the complex strangeness of what it means to be Israeli. Rather than look to national myth or political strife for inspiration, he looked at the walls that boxed him in on his army base, the chair in which his best friend had committed suicide while on guard duty, the gun that had become an extra appendage, and he began to write.
His first story, “Pipes,” written just two weeks after his best friend’s suicide, is about a young man suffering from “severe perceptual disorders.” Deemed unfit to pursue higher education, the boy is sent off to learn a trade and ends up in a metalworking factory making pipes. In the evenings he stays at the factory, crafting oddly shaped tubes and rolling marbles through them. One night he makes a particularly complicated pipe, but when he rolls the marble through, it disappears. This happens with each new pipe he builds, until he decides that if he builds a pipe large enough, he too could disappear.
The young man works every night until the pipe is finished: “When I saw it all in one piece, waiting for me, I remembered my social studies teacher said once that the first human being to use a club wasn’t the strongest person in his tribe or the smartest. They didn’t need the club, while he did. … I don’t think there was another human being in the whole world who wanted to disappear more than I did.”
The young man climbs in and finds himself in heaven, surrounded by all of the people who were unhappy on earth—pilots who flew in from the Bermuda triangle and housewives who climbed in through kitchen cabinets. “I always used to think that Heaven is a place for people who spent their whole life being good, but it isn’t. God is too merciful and kind to make a decision like that. Heaven is simply a place for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth. So if you’re really unhappy down there … look for your own way of getting here, and if you find it, could you please bring some cards, ’cause we’re getting pretty tired of the marbles.” And so Keret, with a laugh, scoots over and makes room on the proverbial bench for the other guy. The guy who not only doesn’t fit in, but who doesn’t even really want to fit in.
For Keret, it was the experience of trying to fit in that led him to writing in the first place. Deeply unhappy in the army, he found that the experience conflicted with everything he learned as a child. “The way I grew up it was always OK to be different, to ask different questions,” Keret said. “But then you go to the army and it is very hostile to that idea.” In an effort to remain inconspicuous, Keret found himself pretending to be someone else. “I would laugh at jokes that I thought weren’t funny and do all the things that other people would do,” Keret said. “When I wrote, it was almost an attempt to remind myself of who I truly was.”
Though Keret’s first book, Pipelines, released in Hebrew in 1992, didn’t get much notice, his second collection, Missing Kissinger, published in 1994, was an immediate success in Israel. Keret says that when his stories first came out people didn’t know how to place them, but that a lot of soldiers and students really connected with them. As Keret explained, “It was kind of the first voice that told the story of the one that didn’t really find their place in the group.”
The Zionist dream was born out of a specific moment in history, and while its founding principles made sense to those who embraced them, the second generation of Israelis and the generation that followed often had a hard time identifying with them, finding incongruities that the older generation couldn’t quite explain. In his story “The Son of the Head of the Mossad,” Keret explores the basic misunderstanding between generations that emerged from the inability to explain some of Zionism’s implicit paradoxes. The story is a classic tale of a son trying to emulate and please his father, but because the boy’s father is the head of the Mossad, which he must keep secret, the father tells his son he is a construction worker. The boy grows up trying to be a construction worker just like his father but is destined to fail, because he is essentially imitating something that does not exist.
The story confronts the difficulty young Israelis face as they try to locate their place in a cultural narrative that they understand peripherally at best. Keret attributes his ability to explore the concept of identity largely to his experience growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors. “When we would go outside my parents spoke perfect fluent Hebrew and my father had this beach-boy tan, but when I would go to sleep my parents would recite poems in Polish,” Keret said. “There has always been a feeling within me that I am both inside and outside of the society around me, which I think speaks to the idea of Jewish doubt or dual identity that you are kind of just like everyone else while at the same time not like everyone else.”
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door continues to explore the idea of identity, but with protagonists who are more grown up, grappling with the overwhelming loneliness and perplexing incongruities that characterize adult life. In the decade since the Israeli publication of his early collection, The Nimrod Flipout, Keret had a son and took a teaching position at Tel Aviv University. While his life was becoming more stable and defined, he found it difficult to write. “I kept coming up with stories about bachelors living in dirty apartments,” said Keret. “I couldn’t find a way to write about my present state.”
But the writer in Keret prevailed, and he emerged with a collection of stories that is funnier and more thought-provoking than his last. While in the past many of Keret’s stories have dealt with the relationship between parents and children, this is the first collection where the stories are told from a parent’s perspective, allowing him to continue leading his disenfranchised generation forward as they move on from army life to the travails of parenting and adult responsibility.
With six collections of short stories, collaboration on three graphic novels, and a Caméra d’Or for the film Jellyfish, which he co-directed with his wife Shira Geffen, Keret has redefined Israel’s artistic landscape and offered a wider, more genuine definition of what it means to be Israeli. As Keret is held up at gunpoint in “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door,” he takes a deep breath and wonders, “How do I always get myself into these situations? I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman.” With a coy smile, Keret looks at his home country, a place that is charming, passionate, violent, and half insane—and laughs.
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