It’s rare that a writer makes you rethink everything you’ve held sacred about your own art. Etgar Keret is one such writer..
Until a few weeks ago, I considered myself a fairly accomplished short story writer. I had published short stories in well-respected literary journals in a number of countries. I’d had them broadcast over the radio. I’d had them shortlisted in well-known international competitions… And then I read the Israeli short story writer Etgar Keret.
It is rare to read a writer who makes you want to remake your entire literary output all over again; rarer still for something like that to happen when you are a well-published writer yourself. A writer has to be special to have that kind of impact on you at such an advanced stage. Etgar Keret is exactly that.
A world away from the prolixity of most Indian writing, Keret writes really short short stories. Some of them are a paragraph long. Others finish in about three pages. Rarely does a Keret story go over 10 pages. The statement that someone can pack more in one paragraph than other writers do over several pages is often used lightly. In the case of Keret it is spot on. Here is the first paragraph from his short story “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail”:
It’s hardest at night. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not saying I miss her most at night — because I don’t miss her, full stop. But at night, when I’m alone in bed, I do think about her. Not warm, fuzzy thoughts about all the good times we had. More like a picture of her in knickers and a T-shirt, sleeping with her mouth open, breathing heavily, leaving a circle of saliva on the pillow, and of myself watching her. What did I actually feel then when I was watching her? First of all, amazement that I wasn’t turned off, and after that, a sort of affection. Not love. Affection. The kind you feel towards an animal or a baby more than towards a wife. Then I cry. Almost every night. And not out of regret. I have nothing to regret. She’s the one who left. And looking back, our splitting up was good, not just for her, for both of us. And it’s even better that we did it before there were kids in the middle to make everything more complicated. So why do I cry? Because that’s just how it is. When something gets taken away from you, even if it’s shit, it hurts. When a tumour is removed, you’re left with a scar. And the best time to scratch it seems to be at night.
As the above excerpt illustrates, Keret does not waste too many words in establishing setting. No long descriptions of the sky or the terrain or, in this case, the room and the bed. In terms of style, he is reminiscent of the absurdist writings of Kafka and the best of the magical realists. In his gender-bending love story “Fatso”, a man’s girlfriend becomes a fat, football-loving bum at night. In “Pipes” a man makes a giant pipe that takes him to heaven. In “Lieland” a habitual liar called Robbie enters a world where all the lies that have ever been told hang out… Writing like this is often dismissed as gimmicky. Keret, however, is a master of marrying the weird with the profound.
Take the case of “Lieland”. In the story, Robbie meets the subjects of his lies, such as the neighbourhood kid who, he claimed, had beaten him up and stolen the money his mother had given to buy her cigarettes (he actually used the money to buy himself ice-cream) and a dog he said had been run over. The kid pounds him and the dog is in terrible pain, and Robbie wishes his lies had included less suffering. When he returns from Lieland, he tries to make his lies more positive and realises how difficult it is to tell a positive lie convincingly. Here Keret evokes one of the central issues of storytelling. Lying is often referred to as telling stories, because the liar, just like the storyteller, makes things up. It is so much easier to be persuasive while conjuring things about the dark side of life.
A measure of the stature Keret has achieved in Israel can be ascertained from the fact that he is the most shoplifted writer in Israel. One time he received a message from a fan who asked him to release his books during the winter rather than the summer, since books were much easier to steal when you were wearing a coat than when you were not.
Keret’s economy, inventiveness, and focus on universal human emotions have made him a celebrated writer everywhere. He is still not that well-known in India. I am sure that anomaly will be corrected in the days to come.