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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

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Etgar Keret at the European Short Story Festival, Zagreb, 2011. (Martina Kenji)
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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.

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Michał says:

Balagan has an etymology from Yakutya and has been brought to Central-East Europe by tzar’s armies. It is commonly used in Yiddish and Polish. From Yiddish it diffused to modern Hebrew.

Baba Wawa says:

Thanks for the great news about Keret’s new book. Can’t wait. I love his stuff.

Wonderful review of Etgar Keret’s new book. Hear him discuss it in Chicago in a conversation with Nathan Englander on April 26. More info at: http://www.chicagohumanities.org/Genres/Literature/2012-Keret-Etgar.aspx

jacob arnon says:

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.”

This as reductive as it is problematic.

Zionists like Jews have always been accused of contradictory crime.

Here they were accused of not developing a sufficiently Jewish literature by some and a too Jewish literature by others.

Truth is the mix was just right.

What made Keret’s writing like that of his predecessors was the early Hebrew writing in Israel. There is line that leads from Yosef Haim Brenner to Keret via Amoz Oz and others.

Critics of the Zionist project (developing a specific Jewish language and culture in their historic homeland) have been trying to sabotage it from the beginning.

Their deconstructive efforts have become a cliche.

Every mediocre Assistant Professor needs to try his or her hand on deconstructing Zionism.

If young Israelis don’t understand what Zionism meant that is because of its success in establishing a country were Jews could be proud of who they are.

A friend once told me that when she was in Israel young people didn’t understand what antisemitism was.

That’s because Zionism creative a society for them in which antisemitism would not be
possible.

This is another indication of the success of Zionism.

See Under: Love is hardly a “realist meditations on Israeli life.” Consider its four sections of non-linear storytelling, including one that reimagines Bruno Schultz as salmon making its way home to spawn in stream in Scotland. Another is in lexographic form (hence, the title) and the stunning “Wasserman” section is a fable embedded in a story within a story. Even the “Momik” section, arguably closest to a “realist” meditation is told through the consciousness of a psychically wounded young boy acting out a story his survivor parents can’t tell.

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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