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Review: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door
Etgar Keret
(translated Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston and Nathan Englander)
Chatto & Windus

In Poetry for Supper, R.S. Thomas implied that poetry is ‘a thing that needs a window before it enters a dark room.’ Perhaps short stories – and flash fiction in particular – need readers who are prepared to open their doors in response to the knock of a stranger.

The writer Etgar Keret first knocked on my own reading room door with the short story collection, Gaza Blues, which also included a longer story by Samir El-youssef. The book was sub-titled ‘Different Stories’ and if the very act of an Israeli and a Palestinian co-writing a book weren’t different enough to justify this then Keret’s quirky and surreal stories proved the point.

Many of the thirty-seven stories in this new collection, including the title story, genuinely do feature a character on some physical threshold and about to make an entrance. At the outset it would be easy to imagine that these stories were going to be larky, fantastical creations and there certainly is plenty of fun, imagination and messing with convention in this book. However, it’s not very long before I’m reminded that they are also about real things in real places. A short story can be a great way to shove uninvited truths through someone’s door in the guise of fiction.

All it takes is one week in this place to figure out how things work – or rather, how things don’t work. The Palestinians asked for a state, nicely. Did they get one? Like hell they did. So they switched to blowing up children on buses, and people started listening. The settlers called for a dialogue. Did anyone take them up on it? Of course not. So they started getting physical, pouring hot oil on the border patrolmen, and suddenly they had an audience. In this country, might makes right, and it doesn’t matter if it’s about politics, or economics or a parking space. Brute force is the only language we understand.

In these stories, death often turns out to be the sudden knock on the door. ‘Killers for hire, they’re like wildflowers. They pop up in more species than you can name.’ In One Step Beyond, Satan inflicts a children’s storybook version of Hell that is worse (and much funnier) than anything ‘basement-like, all dark and dungeony’. In Not Completely Alone, ‘Three of the guys she’d been out with tried to commit suicide.’ In Joseph we learn that in terrorist attacks ‘character is not a factor. In the end, it’s all a matter of angle and distance’.

The mixture of realism and fantasy in these stories means that you can never be quite sure which to expect. In Guava a passenger on an aircraft with engine-failure re-incarnates as a piece of fruit with a fear of falling. The story manages one whole paragraph of naturalism before the angel appears ‘all dressed in white’ and it ends perfectly ripened, rounded and parable-like. Even Surprise Party, a plausible tale about a birthday bash gone wrong, has a stage-directed, hyper-reality, as though watching a Hitchcock film rather than witnessing a real event.

The Story, Victorious gives up all pretense of plot entirely and revels in self-characterization. The resultant meta-fiction is a glorious, confectionery fandango.

This story’s got no shtick to it, no trick to it, no touchy-feely bits. It’s forged from a single block, an amalgam of deep insights and aluminium. It won’t rust, it won’t bust, but it may wander. It’s super contemporary, and timelessly literary.

Sometimes this slight, slickness became too much for me and I found myself wanting to say “Not today, thanks,” to yet another caller. This can be one of the inherent dangers of reading too many short-short fictions in a single encounter.

There are times when one can be receptive, attentive to the sudden appearance of a stranger and of strangeness. For all their flash and panache and jokey carapaces most of these stories have kernels of humanity and compassion embedded deep within them. Keret’s short stories are made for those moments when one can be open to difference and possibility. What Do We Have in Our Pockets? sums it up like this:

So now you know. That’s what I have in my pockets. A chance not to screw up. A slight chance. Not big, not even probable. I know that, I’m not stupid. A tiny chance, let’s say, that when happiness comes along, I can say ‘Yes’ to it, and not ‘Sorry, I don’t have a cigarette/toothpick/coin for the drinks machine’. That’s what I have there, full and bulging, a tiny chance of saying yes and not being sorry.

Pauline Masurel is a short fiction writer who lives in South West England. Her website is at www.unfurling.net.