A habitual liar who sticks his hand into a hole in the ground — and ends up in a place where he finds all the lies he’s ever told. A divorced man whose toddler wants him to kill his ex-mother-in-law. A woman who discovers the man she’s sleeping with has a zipper under his tongue, which turns him into another person after she unzips him.
What goes on in the mind of Etgar Keret that he can produce such fantastical tales? His newest book of stories, “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door” (FSG Originals) is so quintessentially Israeli, yet it isn’t. Released last year in Hebrew, and in English last month by three translators (including Keret’s protégé Nathan Englander), “Suddenly” doesn’t go where Oz, Appelfeld, Agron and so many others in the canon of Israeli literature have gone: War, identity, the land, the history. But his stories, stories of normal people living unexceptional lives who find themselves in exceptional situations, cut so close to the Israeli psyche.
What American, approached by an angry husband in a diner and accused of cheating with his wife, would play along and take the kick to the ribs rather than deny everything? Who else could spend two pages describing the contents of his pockets and turn it into a story about loneliness and the hope that a gift of a postage stamp might lead to love?
Keret bottles the aggressive laissez faire attitude of so many Israeli men and the driven ebullience of its women into his 35 stories, but he also captures the downtrodden, the depressed, the downright suicidal. Sure, these are Israelis (at least most of them), they’re Jews, they’re interesting. But they’re not special. They’re just like everyone else, trying to live their lives no differently from you or me. But when we’re talking about Israeli literature, that makes “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door” exceptional.