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Strange Bedfellows

Talking about lizards at a writers’ conference in Bali

Etgar Keret
October 15, 2010
Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images

The Swiss guy with the funny hat sitting next to me on the balcony of the Indus restaurant is sweating like crazy. I can’t blame him. I’m sweating quite a bit too, and I’m supposed to be used to temperatures like this. But Bali isn’t Tel Aviv. The air here is so damp that you can actually drink it. The Swiss guy tells me that he’s between jobs now, which gives him time to travel. Not too long ago, he managed a resort hotel in the New Caledonian Islands, but he was fired. It’s a long story, he says, but he’ll be glad to tell it to me. The Turkish writer he’s been trying to hit on all night told him that she was going to the bathroom about an hour ago and still hasn’t come back. He’s already had so much to drink, he says, that if he tries to get up he’ll probably roll down the stairs, so he’s better off sitting where he is, ordering another frozen vodka, and telling me his story.

He thought the idea of managing a resort in the New Caledonian Islands sounded cool. It wasn’t till he got there that he realized what a hole-in-the-wall the place was. The air conditioners in the rooms didn’t work, and there were insurgents in the nearby mountains who tended not to bother anyone but for some inexplicable reason, probably boredom, liked to scare hotel guests who went out walking. The cleaning women categorically refused to go anywhere near the hotel’s industrial washing machine, which they claimed was haunted. They insisted on washing the sheets in the river instead. In short, the resort looked nothing like its brochure.

He’d been on the job for a month when a rich American couple arrived. From the minute they entered the small lobby, he had a feeling they were going to be trouble. They had that look of a typical unsatisfied customer, the kind that comes to the reception desk to complain about the temperature of the water in the pool. The Swiss guy sat behind the reception desk, poured himself a glass of whiskey, and waited for the couple’s irate call. It came in less than 15 minutes. “There’s a lizard in the bathroom,” shouted the hoarse voice on the other end of the line. “There are a lot of lizards on the island, sir,” the Swiss guy said politely. “That’s part of the charm of the place.”

“The charm of the place?” the American yelled. “The charm of the place? My wife and I are not charmed. I want someone up here to get that lizard out of our room, do you hear me?”

“Sir,” the Swiss guy said, “removing that particular lizard won’t help. The area is full of lizards. There’s a good chance that, by tomorrow morning, you’ll find another few like it in your room, maybe even in your bed. But it’s not that bad because—”

The Swiss guy didn’t get to finish his sentence. The American had already slammed down the receiver. Here it comes, the Swiss guy thought as he gulped down the remains of his whiskey. In another minute they’d be at the reception desk yelling at him. With his luck, they probably know some higher-up in the resort chain, and he’ll be screwed.

He got up tiredly from behind the reception desk, having decided to take action: He’d get a bottle of champagne and bring it to them himself. He’d suck up to them the way they’d taught him in school and get himself out of this mess. It’s no fun, but it’s the right thing to do. Halfway to their room, he saw the Americans’ car speeding toward him. It zipped past him, almost running him over, and continued in the direction of the main road. He tried to wave goodbye but the car didn’t slow down.

He went to their room. They left the door open. Their bags were gone. He opened the door to the bathroom and saw the lizard. The lizard saw him too. They looked at each other in silence for a few seconds. It was about five feet long, the lizard, and it had claws. He’d seen one like it once, in some nature film; he didn’t remember exactly what the film had to say about them, only that they were very scary, unpleasant things. Now he understood why the Americans had taken off like that. The image of one of those cuties in bed with them had sent them packing.

“And that’s the end of the story,” the Swiss guy said. It turns out that those Americans really did write a letter, and a week later, he was fired. He’s been traveling around ever since. In November, he’ll be going back to Switzerland to see if he can make it in his brother’s business.

When I ask him if he thinks there’s a moral to his story, he says he’s sure there must be, but he doesn’t know exactly what it is. “Maybe,” he says after a short pause, “it’s that this world is full of lizards and even though there’s nothing we can do about it, we should always try to find out how big they are.”

The Swiss guy asks me where I’m from. Israel, I tell him, and I had a hell of a time getting to this writers’ festival. My parents didn’t want me to come. They were afraid I’d be kidnapped here, or killed. After all, Indonesia is a Muslim country, and very anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic, some say. I tried to calm them down by sending them a link to a Wikipedia page that said Bali has a vast Hindu majority. It didn’t help. Dad insisted that you don’t need a majority vote to put a bullet in my head. Once Israeli flags were burned in front of the Israeli Embassy in Jakarta, but since diplomatic relations were broken off, those flags have to be burned in front of the American Embassy. A living, breathing Israeli could really make their day.

Getting a visa was a hassle, too—I had to wait five days in Bangkok, and I would’ve had to go back to Israel if the festival director hadn’t managed to get to a senior official in the Indonesian Foreign Ministry through his Facebook page and become his Facebook friend. I tell the Swiss guy that in a little while, I’ll be reading at the opening event in the Bali palace in front of the governor of the island and representatives of the royal family, and if he’s able to stand on his feet by then, he’s invited. The Swiss guy really likes the idea. I have to help him stand up, but after the first step, he manages to walk without any help.

There are more than 500 people at the event. The governor and representatives of the royal family are sitting in the first row. They look at me while I read. I can’t really decipher their expressions, but they look very focused. I’m the first Israeli writer ever to come to Bali. I might even be the first Israeli, maybe even the first Jew, some members of the audience have ever seen. What do they see when they look at me? Probably a lizard, and from the smiles slowly spreading across their faces, this lizard is a lot smaller and more sociable than they expected.

Translated by Sondra Silverston.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.