Sunday, April 01, 2007

On Etgar Keret's Missing Kissinger

A version of this piece on Etgar Keret's new book of stories Missing Kissinger appeared recently in the Scotland on Sunday.

On the inside back-cover of his new book Missing Kissinger, Etgar Keret appears with a black gag around his mouth, staring into the camera with one eye. And if that's what a writer gets up to with just his author photograph, imagine what the stories are like.

Keret is one of literature's freest, zaniest spirits - just as his photograph is not what we expect of the Writer, or the Israeli writer, so his stories stick their tongue out at conventional notions of the literary. They are no more than four or five pages long, their sentences are very short, their language that of casual conversation, and their tone laconic ("Soon as…", a typical Keret sentence begins, or "Truth is…"). The characters, mostly everyday joes puzzled by life, work within a limited vocabulary: "I was going through a shitty time", they might say, or "I love him too, I really do, but that's a biggie".

Indeed, Keret's stories are all tricks of voice, of people taking grave matters lightly and impossible things seriously, in a way that we both see their point and relish the confusion. In the Keretian universe anything can happen; his stories have the strangest premises.

"Suddenly, I could do it," begins the story "Freeze". "I'd say 'Freeze' and everyone would freeze, just like that, in the middle of the street." In "Cramps", the unnamed narrator dreams that he, or she, is a forty-year-old woman, who then falls asleep and dreams she is a twenty-seven-year-old man. Two boys dig for dinosaur eggs in their backyard and find one, and another commandeers an army of ants. In an essay on "quickness" in literature, Italo Calvino noted how in some works "the speed at which events follow one another conveys a feeling of the ineluctable". That remark might serve as a summary of Keret's method.

The stories abound with splendid gags. In "Venus Lite", all the gods come down to earth to work, and Venus arrives in the narrator's office, to work the photocopier. The narrator is going through a hard time and needs something to believe in. He falls in love with beautiful Venus right away, but can't work up the courage to tell her. "In the end, I wrote it down on a piece of paper and left it on the desk for her. The next morning, the note was waiting for me, along with fifty photocopies."

The same anti-climactic tone characterises "Magician School", one of three stories about magicians in Missing Kissinger. The narrator, a young magician, is telling us about the recent graduation ceremony at Magicians High School:
At the ceremony, all the graduates got to demonstrate something from their theses. Amicam Schneidman, who was undoubtedly the great Israeli hope in the field of classical magic, showed how he turned staplers into animals. Mahmud al-Mi'ari shrank himself into miniature size and talked to things that didn't exist. I killed a cow. After the ceremony, I was thinking about something else as I was pulling out the parking lot and boom! After it died, it turned back into a stapler.
In the story "Drops", one of Keret's many unreasonable and perplexing women learns that someone has invented a medicine against feeling alone, and decides to leave her boyfriend before he cheats on her. The medicine comes in two forms, drops and spray. The narrator's girlfriend chooses drops. "Just because she doesn't want to feel alone, there's no reason to harm the ozone layer."

Just as Keret's stories are anti-literary, so too they are anti-romantic. Illusions are always being punctured, and the unambitious protagonists are always being left by their girlfriends for firemen, law students or photographers. Life is tough, and even when the going is great - as in "Freeze", when the narrator can take the most beautiful women home after getting them to freeze - the fun is ruined by the realization that "None of them wants me because of what I really am". These are fine, potent drops of storytelling.

Here is a previous post on Keret: "The zany fictions of Etgar Keret".

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