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
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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