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Offbeat in Israel

A surreal and subtle collection of stories by Israel’s most unusual writer

Simon Willis | March/April 2012

Author Etgar Keret 
English Title Suddenly, a Knock on the Door 
Original Title Pit’om Dfika Badelet (2010) 
Original Language Hebrew 
Translators Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander

Etgar Keret is a gloriously zany writer who can be both entirely surreal and have his feet on the ground at the same time. In this collection of stories, he turns his extraordinary eye on ordinary people. They’re mainly fellow Israelis with mediocre marriages, disappointing sex lives, unpromising investments, isolated, ageing and immersed in the background hum of the country’s politics. What unites them is that they’re looking for distraction or escape, the knock at the door that promises something brighter. “Unemployment, suicide bombings, Iranians,” says a pizza-delivery guy in the title story. “People are hungry for something else.”  

Keret is known for very short stories, surreal riffs and neatly provocative thought experiments just two or three pages long—stories like “Unzipping”, in which a woman finds a zip under her boyfriend’s tongue, and reveals an entirely new man beneath the skin of the old. When that relationship dies, we’re left wondering whether novelty is always a change for the better. It’s a quirky conceit with a banal pay-off. Keret is at his best when he gives himself more room and relies on more grounded twists and surprises. In “Healthy Start”, Miron, whose wife has left him, eats breakfast alone every morning in the same café, opposite the same empty chair, until someone sits down thinking he’s someone else. Miron runs with it, and decides that an imaginary life is sometimes better than no life at all. Oshri, the protagonist in “Bad Karma” who has a moderately claustrophobic marriage, looks back fondly on six weeks he spent in a coma, “the sense of existing without a name and without a history, in the present…an unaccountable optimism”. This being Etgar Keret, the coma kicked in when Oshri was hit by a suicide falling from a tall building. And Oshri makes a living by selling life insurance. 

If the set-ups sound strained, part of the appeal of these stories is the unspooling and rewinding of a tale so offbeat that it’s a pleasant and often poignant surprise when the real world shows through. The other pleasure is the voice. Three translators worked on these pieces, including the novelist Nathan Englander, but they have achieved a remarkably consistent tone—wisecracking, intimate, confessional, with a darkly protective layer of jokes.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is out now from Chatto & Windus in Britain and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in America

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