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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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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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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

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