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Bringing up a child, lying to the boss, placing an order in a fast-food restaurant: in Etgar Keret’s new collection, daily life is complicated, dangerous, and full of yearning. In his most playful and most mature work yet, the living and the dead, silent children and talking animals, dreams and waking life coexist in an uneasy world. Overflowing with absurdity, humor, sadness, and compassion, the tales in Suddenly, a Knock on the Door establish Etgar Keret—declared a “genius” by The New York Times—as one of the ...
Bringing up a child, lying to the boss, placing an order in a fast-food restaurant: in Etgar Keret’s new collection, daily life is complicated, dangerous, and full of yearning. In his most playful and most mature work yet, the living and the dead, silent children and talking animals, dreams and waking life coexist in an uneasy world. Overflowing with absurdity, humor, sadness, and compassion, the tales in Suddenly, a Knock on the Door establish Etgar Keret—declared a “genius” by The New York Times—as one of the most original writers of his generation.
“Etgar Keret’s stories are funny, with tons of feeling, driving towards destinations you never see coming. They’re written in the most unpretentious, chatty voice possible, but they’re also weirdly poetic. They stick in your gut. You think about them for days. “ —Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life
“Strangeness abounds. Keret fits so much psychological and social complexity and metaphysical mystery into these quick, wry, jolting, funny, off-handedly fabulist miniatures, they’re like literary magic tricks: no matter how closely you read, you can’t figure out how he does it.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (March 15)
“His pieces elicit comparison to sources as diverse as Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut and Woody Allen . . . [Keret is] a writer who is often very funny and inventive, and occasionally profound.” —Kirkus Reviews (March 15)
“Israeli author Keret writes sometimes appealingly wacky, sometimes darkly absurdist stories that translate well to America . . . Sophisticated readers should check this out.” —Library Journal, pre-pub alert
“In this slim volume of flash fiction and short stories, Israeli author/filmmaker Keret (The Nimrod Flipout; the film Jellyfish) writes with alternating Singeresque magical realism and Kafkaesque absurdity.” —Publishers Weekly
“This collection of short stories brims with invention . . . Etgar Keret is a great short story writer whose work is all the greater because it’s funny . . . [He] most becomes himself in comedy shorts, telling tales of the absurd and the surreal . . . As one of the 20th century’s great comic writers—and one of Keret’s true precursors—might have said, so it goes . . . To complain about Keret being Keret is like complaining about Chekhov being Chekhov.” —Ian Sansom, The Guardian
“[Keret] deserves full marks for chutzpah . . . His work zings with imaginative conceits, clever asides and self-conscious twists. Yet there is also an easygoing quality to his writing that makes the 37 stories collected here instantly likeable . . . his stories assume an anecdotal style that gives them an air of spontaneity, as if he were relating them over a cup of coffee in one of the Tel Aviv cafes frequented by his characters . . . Keret’s willingness to develop quirky concepts (one story features a magic, talking goldfish) would seem to grant him a place alongside such idiosyncratic writers as Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino. But if his work is sometimes reminiscent of these writers, it also carves out its own territory.” —James Ley, The Sydney Morning Herald
“A brilliant writer . . . completely unlike any writer I know. The voice of the next generation.” —Salman Rushdie
“Keret can do more with six . . .paragraphs than most writers can with 600 pages.” —Kyle Smith, People
WHAT, OF THIS GOLDFISH, WOULD YOU WISH?
Yonatan had a brilliant idea for a documentary. He’d knock on doors. Just him. No camera crew, no nonsense. Just·Yonatan, on his own, a small camera in hand, asking, “If you found a talking goldfish that granted you three wishes, what would you wish for?”
Folks would give their answers, and Yoni would edit them down and make clips of the more surprising responses. Before every set of answers, you’d see the person standing stock-still in the entrance to his house. Onto this shot he’d superimpose the subject’s name, family situation, monthly income, and maybe even the party he’d voted for in the last election. All that, combined with the three wishes, and maybe he’d end up with a poignant piece of social commentary, a testament to the massive rift between our dreams and the often comprimised reality in which we live.
It was genius, Yoni was sure. And, if not, at least it was cheap. All he needed was a door to knock on and a heart beating on the other side. With a little decent footage, he was sure he’d be able to sell it to Channel 8 or Discovery in a flash, either as a film or as a bunch of vignettes, little cinematic corners, each with that singular soul standing in a doorway, followed by three killer wishes, precious, every one.
Even better, maybe he’d cash out, package it with a slogan and sell it to a bank or cellular phone company. Maybe tag it with something like “Different dreams, different wishes, one bank.” Or “The bank that makes dreams come true.”
No prep, no plotting, natural as can be, Yoni grabbed his camera and went out knocking on doors. In the first neighborhood he went to, the kindly folk that took part generally requested the foreseeable things: health, money, bigger apartments, either to shave off a couple of years or a couple of pounds. But there were also powerful moments. One drawn, wizened old lady asked simply for a child. A Holocaust survivor with a number on his arm asked very slowly, in a quiet voice—as if he’d been waiting for Yoni to come, as if it wasn’t an exercise at all—he’d been wondering (if this fish didn’t mind), would it be possible for all the Nazis left living in the world to be held accountable for their crimes? A cocky, broad-shouldered lady-killer put out his cigarette and, as if the camera wasn’t there, wished he were a girl. “Just for a night,” he added, holding a single finger right up to the lens.
And these were wishes from just one short block in one small, sleepy suburb of Tel Aviv. Yonatan could hardly imagine what people were dreaming of in the development towns and the collectives along the northern border, in the West Bank settlements and Arab villages, the immigrant absorption centers full of broken trailers and tired people left to broil out in the desert sun.
Yonatan knew that if the project was going to have any weight, he’d have to get to everyone, to the unemployed, to the ultrareligious, to the Arabs and Ethiopians and American expats. He began to plan a shooting schedule for the coming days: Jaffa, Dimona, Ashdod, Sderot, Taibe, Talpiot. Maybe Hebron, even. If he could sneak past the wall, Hebron would be great. Maybe somewhere in that city some beleaguered Arab man would stand in his doorway and, looking through Yonatan and his camera, looking out into nothingness, just pause for a minute, nod his head, and wish for peace—that would be something to see.
Sergei Goralick doesn’t much like strangers banging on his door. Especially when those strangers are asking him questions. In Russia, when Sergei was young, it happened plenty. The KGB felt right at home knocking on his door. His father had been a Zionist, which was pretty much an invitation for them to drop by any old time.
When Sergei got to Israel and then moved to Jaffa, his family couldn’t wrap their heads around it. They’d ask him, What are you looking to find in a place like that? There’s no one there but addicts and Arabs and pensioners. But what is most excellent about addicts and Arabs and pensioners is that they don’t come around knocking on Sergei’s door. That way Sergei can get his sleep, and get up when it’s still dark. He can take his little boat out into the sea and fish until he’s done fishing. By himself. In silence. The way it should be. The way it was.
Until one day some kid with a ring in his ear, looking a little bit homosexual, comes knocking. Hard like that—rapping at his door. Just the way Sergei doesn’t like. And he says, this kid, that he has some questions he wants to put on the TV.
Sergei tells the boy, tells him in what he thinks is a straightforward manner, that he doesn’t want it. Not interested. Sergei gives the camera a shove, to help make it clear. But the earring boy is stubborn. He says all kinds of things, fast things. And it’s hard for Sergei to follow; his Hebrew isn’t so good.
The boy slows down, tells Sergei he has a strong face, a nice face, and that he simply has to have him for this movie picture. Sergei can also slow down, he can also make clear. He tells the kid to fuck off. But the kid is slippery, and somehow between saying no and pushing the door closed, Sergei finds that the kid is in his house. He’s already making his movie, running his camera without any permission, and from behind the camera he’s still telling Sergei about his face, that it’s full of feeling, that it’s tender. Suddenly the kid spots Sergei’s goldfish flitting around in its big glass jar in his kitchen.
The kid with the earring starts screaming, “Goldfish, goldfish,” he’s so excited. And this, this really pressures Sergei, who tells the kid, it’s nothing, just a regular goldfish, stop filming it. Just a goldfish, Sergei tells him, just something he found flapping around in the net, a deep-sea goldfish. But the boy isn’t listening. He’s still filming and getting closer and saying something about talking and fish and a magic wish.
Sergei doesn’t like this, doesn’t like that the boy is almost at it, already reaching for the jar. In this instant Sergei understands the boy didn’t come for television, what he came for, specifically, is to snatch Sergei’s fish, to steal it away. Before the mind of Sergei Goralick really understands what it is his body has done, he seems to have taken the burner off the stove and hit the boy in the head. The boy falls. The camera falls with him. The camera breaks open on the floor, along with the boy’s skull. There’s a lot of blood coming out of the head, and Sergei really doesn’t know what to do.
That is, he knows exactly what to do, but it really would complicate things. Because if he takes this kid to the hospital, people are going to ask what happened, and it would take things in a direction Sergei doesn’t want to go.
“No reason to take him to the hospital anyway,” says the goldfish, in Russian. “That one’s already dead.”
“He can’t be dead,” Sergei says, with a moan. “I barely touched him. It’s only a burner. Only a little thing.” Sergei holds it up to the fish, taps it against his own skull to prove it. “It’s not even that hard.”
“Maybe not,” says the fish. “But, apparently, it’s harder than that kid’s head.”
“He wanted to take you from me,” Sergei says, almost crying.
“Nonsense,” the fish says. “He was only here to make a little something for TV.”
“But he said …”
“He said,” says the fish, interrupting, “exactly what he was doing. But you didn’t get it. Honestly, your Hebrew, it’s terrible.”
“Yours is better?” Sergei says. “Yours is so great?”
“Yes. Mine’s supergreat,” the goldfish says, sounding impatient. ‘‘I’m a magic fish. I’m fluent in everything:” All the while the puddle of blood from the earring kid’s head is getting bigger and bigger and Sergei is on his toes, up against the kitchen wall, desperate not to step in it, not to get blood on his feet.
“You do have one wish left,” the fish reminds Sergei. He says it easy like that, as if Sergei doesn’t know—as if either of them ever loses count.
“No,” Sergei says. He’s shaking his head from side to side. “I can’t,” he says. “I’ve been saving it. Saving it for something.”
“For what?” the fish says.
But Sergei won’t answer.
That first wish, Sergei used up when they discovered a cancer in his sister. A lung cancer, the kind you don’t get better from. The fish undid it in an instant—the words barely out of Sergei’s mouth. The second wish Sergei used up five years ago, on Sveta’s boy. The kid was still small then, barely three, but the doctors already knew something in her son’s head wasn’t right. He was going to grow big but not in the brain. Three was about as smart as he’d get. Sveta cried to Sergei in bed all night. Sergei walked home along the beach when the sun came up, and he called to the fish, asked the goldfish to fix it as soon as he’d crossed through the door. He never told Sveta. And a few months later she left him for some cop, a Moroccan with a shiny Honda. In his heart, Sergei kept telling himself it wasn’t for Sveta that he’d done it, that he’d wished his wish purely for the boy. In his mind, he was less sure, and all kinds of thoughts about other things he could have done with that wish continued to gnaw at him, half driving him mad. The third wish, Sergei hadn’t yet wished for.
“I can restore him,” says the goldfish. “I can bring him back to life.”
“No one’s asking,” Sergei says.
“I can bring him back to the moment before,” the goldfish says. “To before he knocks on your door. I can put him back to right there. I can do it. All you need to do is ask.”
“To wish my wish,” Sergei says. “My last.”
The fish swishes his fish tail back and forth in the water, the way he does, Sergei knows, when he’s truly excited. The goldfish can already taste freedom. Sergei can see it on him.
After the last wish, Sergei won’t have a choice. He’ll have to let the goldfish go. His magic goldfish. His friend.
“Fixable,” Sergei says. “I’ll just mop up the blood. A good sponge and it’ll be like it never was.”
That tail just goes back and forth, the fish’s head steady.
Sergei takes a deep breath. He steps out into the middle of the kitchen, out into the puddle. “When I’m fishing, while it’s dark and the world’s asleep,” he says, half to himself and half to the fish, “I’ll tie the kid to a rock and dump him in the sea. Not a chance, not in a million years, will anyone ever find him.”
“You killed him, Sergei,” the goldfish says. “You murdered someone—but you’re not a murderer.” The goldfish stops swishing his tail. “If, on this, you won’t waste a wish, then tell me, Sergei, what is it good for?”
It was in Bethlehem, actually, that Yonatan found his Arab, a handsome man who used his first wish for peace. His name was Munir; he was fat with a big white mustache. Superphotogenic. It was moving, the way he said it. Perfect, the way in which Munir wished his wish. Yoni knew even as he was filming that this guy would be his promo for sure.
Either him or that Russian. The one with the faded tattoos that Yoni had met in Jaffa. The one that looked straight into the camera and said, if he ever found a talking goldfish he wouldn’t ask of it a single thing. He’d just stick it on a shelf in a big glass jar and talk to him all day, it didn’t matter about what. Maybe sports, maybe politics, whatever a goldfish was interested in chatting about.
Anything, the Russian said, not to be alone.
Excerpted from Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret Copyright © 2012 by Etgar Keret. Excerpted by permission.
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What Happens Next: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Etgar Keret
Listeners of public radio's This American Life have endured no shortage of the breezy yet fully imagined vignettes of Israeli life written and read by Etgar Keret. His readers, however, were forced to wait four years for this collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, which delivers far more pleasures than perils. In its seemingly random, absurdist pages, a counterfeit shekel ends up having more value than a genuine one, a goldfish possesses the ability to confer magic wishes for good or ill, and stories fold back on themselves so that they present their own sense of déjà vu — a strange, bedeviling, often (but not always) happy sensation. Readers may be either put off or enchanted by the playfulness, but at their best the stories convey a sense that the world is knowable on some level we can't verbalize. Nevertheless, we couldn't help but try, and in a flurry of emails, we managed to entice Mr. Keret to say a few words about his process. —Daniel Asa Rose
The Barnes & Noble Review: Your characters are always running into people they know—someone's grandma or dentist. There's a sense that people are yoked closely together. How much is this the result of hailing from a small nation, or does it predate Israel and perhaps smack of a shtetl sensibility?
Etgar Keret: It is a very Jewish thing to know everybody. It is impossible to become a serial killer in Israel because everyone you try killing will be in the end the brother or the cousin of someone you went to school with.
BNR: Would you be a very different writer if you'd been raised in America, where we sometimes fancy that we have six degrees of separation, as opposed to Israel, where there seem to be only two or three?
EK: What do you mean "two or three"? If I don't know the guy personally he must be an Iranian mole.
BNR: In several of your stories, your male characters are always having sex "on the side" almost as a matter of course. Is that how it is in Israel today?
EK: Why? You are considering immigrating? When I write about adultery I mostly use it as a metaphor. Living comfortably with something that is immoral and problematic is, sadly, very human and yes, it is also very Israeli.
BNR: This book arrives with a lot of PR hoopla—even something called an "Etgar Keret Art & Design Contest." Is that fun for you or a drag?
EK: A few weeks ago my mother called my home while I was giving an interview. My wife told her I couldn't take her call because I was working, and my mother corrected her, saying that talking to somebody about yourself isn't exactly work. PR is fun most of the time, and when it isn't it is something slightly unpleasant you are doing for something you really believe in, which is a much better deal than most people get.
BNR: In the story "A Good One," you suggest that some airline passengers befriend their neighbors solely so that they can appropriate the armrest. Are you cynical?
EK: I hope I'm not, but I am very ironic. The big difference between irony and cynicism (at least the way I use these terms) is that cynicism is built on alienation, while irony can make fun of things but at the same time can be also empathic and warm. It is the difference between making a joke about a total stranger and making one about your mom.
BNR: Is your intention to move readers, to amuse them, to cast things in a different light for them, or what?
EK: It's "or what" for certain. Writing never has a pragmatic purpose for me. It doesn't have any purpose, at least not one which I'm able to grasp or articulate.
BNR: Do you ever know how a story will end before you start?
EK: I never know what is going to happen in my story. The strongest drive I have for writing is curiosity. I write like a reader who-wants to know what will happen next. When the first draft ends I many times change the structure but when I first write it, it is a complete mystery.
BNR: Have you achieved the proper amount of success for your talent? Not too little, not too much?
EK: I don't think anyone deserves success. It is like a gift and when you get one, you don't weigh it, you just say "thanks."
BNR: Some reviewers have detected anger in your work. I get wistful bemusement. Am I missing something?
EK: Oh, I am angry, but not with you. You are nice.
BNR: But maybe I'm just a naturally shallow person.
EK: There is nothing natural about being shallow.
BNR: Was that a dumb thing for me to say?
EK: It wasn't, and you are not shallow.
BNR: Reviewers sometimes use violent expressions to describe your writing. It "swings around and hits you in the back of the head" (Tikkun); "whaling at the ice with a Wiffle ball bat" (The Forward). If you were reviewing yourself, what imagery would you use?
EK: "Massages you with aromatic oils"? "Embraces you with hairy warmth"? Man, I'm not good at this.
BNR: Your male characters have been described as "trapped in stasis," but I see them more as floating upside down in midair like in a Chagall painting. Do either of these ring true?
EK: I think both are true. Believe me, one has to be trapped in stasis for a very long time to start floating upside down in midair.
BNR: How much do you polish?
EK: A lot, for much, much longer than I actually write.
BNR: You don't strike me as a particularly tortured person. Care to comment?
EK: Thanks. I have already learned that I pass as very happy and easygoing in email interviews.
BNR: There's a sense of effortlessness to your stories, as though they easily flow out of you. Do you ever get the feeling readers or reviewers resent that?
EK: A reader once told me disappointedly, "I could have written those stories," and I answered, "But you don't need to, I've already written them for you." When it comes to writing I try not to sweat a lot, and when I do I try my best to hide it.
—March 29, 2012
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, a Knock on the Door. We hope they will enrich your experience as you explore this kaleidoscopic masterwork of modern fiction.
Posted April 28, 2012
Keret is an amazing writer. If you haven't read him don't walk - RUN. Surreal and funny!
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