There are 46 stories in this 211-page anthology. That’s roughly 4.5 pages to a story. But don’t mistake this collection, translated from Hebrew by Miriam Schlesinger and Sondra Silverston, for easy reading. Each of these stories is distilled disturbance.
It would be convenient to attribute the ferocity of these short stories to the author’s Israeli origins, to the multiple conflicts that inform life in West Asia, to the unstable cauldron of hope, fear, excitement and disappointment that simmers in the region. But Etgar Keret’s talent is of the nature that draws from, but is not limited by, his environment. His fiefdom is the human soul, sometimes whacko, frequently warped, but always fiercely, violently recognizable.
In as much as there is a theme to this collection, it is the inner workings of a mind in a world fast losing coherence. Magic comes up again and again. In Hat Trick, a magician pulls out the severed head of a rabbit from a hat at a children’s party. Bored kids, preoccupied with a Schwarzenegger film, turn around to applaud. In Magicians School, a young man loses his girl when he fights shy of restoring a beggar’s amputated legs. And in the charming Abram Cadabram, magic gets the better of nasty officials.
Always male, always young, Keret’s narrators (he rarely uses the third person to tell a story) meld the simple with the surreal to startling tragicomic effect. In a number of stories, a girl questions her man’s faith or loyalty. In Missing Kissinger, she asks for his mother’s heart as proof of his love and in Clean Shave, she demands he remove every hair on his body as she “loves him smooth, with no corners, no sharp edges”.
Keret’s stories, though, have plenty of both, corners and sharp edges. He leads the reader into a situation that’s just a degree or two off regular—like a summer afternoon with no shadows—and then rams it in so hard you’re left reeling, in a manner reminiscent of Roald Dahl.
A tender love story morphs into a sudden wham-bang examination of man’s shallowness (One Hundred Per Cent, The Girl on the Refrigerator, Korbi’s Girl, Venus Lite). A young child waits up all night for his parents to pick him up from a hated Hanukkah camp and angrily wishes them dead, and they are (Hope They Die). One friend dissuades another from doing “anything stupid” after an evening at the pub, and then plays with a gun—and refrains from pulling the trigger (The Real Winner of the Preliminary Games).
Amid the overwhelming instances of violence, cruelty, indifference, Shoes stands out for its sheer innocent beauty. After a tour of a Holocaust museum and a guilt-evoking lecture on “Jew-killer” products, a young boy—the grandson of a Holocaust victim—is aghast when presented with Adidas trainers. But he wears them to football and scores the winning goal. A pithier, more poignant treatise on the merits of magnanimity would be hard to come by.
Keret puts his hand into the dark places. You may be the one having trouble shutting your eyes and falling asleep.
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