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Friday, July 25, 2014

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Keret’s surreal stories tinged with sad realism

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Nothing is too far-fetched in the stories and characters that populate Etgar Keret’s fantastic imagination.

A man gets transported back to his childhood; a woman unzips her boyfriend and finds another man lurking inside; a man keeps just about everything in his pocket, just in case someone asks him for something; a goldfish grants wishes, and a gumball machine can transport people to the land where all your lies come to life.

One short story even claims to be a unique Israeli innovation and the best story in the world.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is the latest collection of stories by the popular Israeli writer.

Several of the stories deal with the art of writing itself  – of inventing and creating words of make-believe.

The title story, for instance, is about a writer (named Keret) who is forced to tell a story at gunpoint to a bearded Swedish man in his living room.

This doesn’t happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman, the narrator thinks, a tribute to other Israeli writers Keret is often compared to.

“Two people are sitting in a room,” the writer begins saying nervously, “suddenly there’s a knock on the door!” And sure enough, as happens in an Etgar Keret story, suddenly there is a knock on the door.  In comes a pollster doing a survey who also pulls out a gun and demands that Keret tells him a story.

Eventually, there’s another knock, and a pizza delivery boy also joins in the action demanding a story. When Keret (the character) begins telling them about his current plight, the Swede protests. “That’s not a story. It’s exactly what’s happening here right now. Don’t you go and dump reality on us like a garbage truck. Use your imagination, man, create, invent, take it all the way.”

And take it all away is exactly what Keret, the author, does with these 35 short stories.

They’re surreal and imaginative, yet at the same time tinged with slice-of-life realism and sadness.

One of the common themes in these stories is that of characters being drawn to invention and fiction in order to escape their own loneliness and alienation. Such is the case in Parallel Universes, in which a heartbroken, suicidal man imagines an alternate reality where nothing bad is happening to him.

This theme is also true of one of my favourites in this collection, Healthy Start. In it, Miron, a lonely widower, takes to going to a café for breakfast every morning. One day, a man sits at his table, mistakenly believing that Miron was somebody he was supposed to meet. Miron pretends he is that person and continues the conversation with him.

From then on, every morning, Miron pretends to be the person that other people made plans to meet with at the café – a blind date or a man who believes Miron is seducing his wife – and uses these situations to escape his own depressing life.

While many of the stories are light-hearted and humorous, some like Teamwork where a divorced father agrees to kill his son’s babysitter, or in Polite Little Boy in which a young boy witnesses the impending dissolution of his parents’ marriage, also have a dark side to them.

In a way, these stories explore all sides of human nature, from love, to lust, loneliness, regret, hatred and revenge.

People magazine says that Keret can do more with six strange and funny paragraphs than most writers can with 600 pages, and this is true. Most of these stories are under four pages long. The few longer ones, in fact, are the ones that don’t work very well.

Born in 1967, Keret is one of the new breed of rising young artists coming out of Israel, and he’s certainly one to keep a close eye on. He’s been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s and the New York Times. He’s also an acclaimed film director and his first film, Jellyfish, won the Caméra d’Or prize at the Cannes festival in 2007.

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