If a man comes knocking at your door to steal your magic goldfish, what do you do? Do you a.) politely ask him to leave; b.) assault him with the nearest metal object at hand; or c.) ask the goldfish to grant you your third and final wish and make the problem go away?
In Etgar Keret’s world, the choice is all of the above. The protagonists of his new short story collection—Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverton and Nathan Englander—often confront dilemmas such as the ownership of a magic goldfish, or the discovery of a parallel world where lies have become real. Their daily lives in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities are full of such strange occurrences, but beneath the zaniness of these situations are always the more profound and inescapable challenges of being human: how to sustain love and relationships; how to be a good parent; and how to reconcile the powers of imagination with an often deficient reality.
Readers of Keret’s 2006 collection, The Nimrod Flipout, will no doubt recognize these themes. But some of the lightness and charm that Keret mined in them has been replaced by a darker mineral, a sense that, as he writes in the story “Cheesus Christ,” “the chance of something detrimental occurring is a thousand times greater than the chance of something beneficial happening.” But Keret still finds humor in such odds, and in his finest stories, he finds hope in them, too.
Sergei Goralick, the protagonist of the story “What, Of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?” is a Russian emigré living in Jaffa, a place full of “addicts, Arabs and pensioners.” He lives there in spite of these motley neighbors because “what is most excellent about addicts and Arabs and pensioners is that they don’t come knocking on Sergei’s door.” Only, a stranger does come knocking: Yonatan, a filmmaker working on a documentary about what three wishes people might ask of a talking goldfish, should one exist. He wants Sergei to answer his questions, but what he doesn’t know is that Sergei actually possesses such a goldfish—he caught it in the sea, simple as that—which has granted him three wishes. Sergei has already used two: one to save his sister from cancer and the other to save his lover’s son from mental disability (in typical fashion for this collection, the lover has left Sergei, unaware of his good deed). The third wish he has been saving.
Not speaking fluent Hebrew, Sergei misunderstands Yonatan’s request for him to be in the documentary and believes he is there to steal the goldfish.
Before the mind of Sergei Goralick really understands what it is his body has done, he seems to have taken the burner off the stove and hit the boy in the head. The boy falls. The camera falls with him. The camera breaks open on the floor, along with the boy’s skull.
The disconnect between what Sergei feels and what he does is typical of Keret’s characters. They often watch, from a remove, as they perform actions they know to be wrong. Keret’s short, descriptive sentences are well-suited to conveying the detached nature of this kind of observation and the translators have rendered it perfectly.
The power of the story is in watching Sergei struggle over whether to use his last wish (which will also set the fish free) to undo his murder. He chooses to restore Yonatan to life, and the clock is turned back to the moment before Yonatan arrives. The two eventually start talking, and in answering the filmmaker’s questions, Sergei says something revealing. “If he ever found a talking goldfish, he wouldn’t ask of it a single thing. He’d just stick it on a shelf in a big glass jar and talk to him all day, it didn’t matter about what. Maybe sports, maybe politics, whatever a goldfish was interested in chatting about. Anything, the Russian said, not to be alone.”
The fear of being alone is the ultimate reason Sergei is hesitant to give up his last wish. It’s an admission that, even for those lucky enough to be possessed with a supernatural ability to remake the world and right wrongs, the comfort of connection—be it human or animal—is the true motivator.
And connection, for Keret’s lovers, divorcés, and adulterers, is not easily achieved. Romantic and sexual relationships are not, as many of the stories suggest, where men and women will find happiness and intimacy. The darker side of romance, however, is where Keret finds much pathos and humor. In the hilarious and sad “Ari,” a woman only screams the name Ari during sex. This is because all of her boyfriends have been named Ari, including her current one, who narrates the story. She cheats on him with their landlord—named Ari, of course—and proposes a threesome with the two men.
And that’s how I find myself in bed with my landlord . . . After a while, my girlfriend’s body starts to shake up above me. I sense she’s on her way. And I can tell that when she screams, somehow, everything will be all right. Because our name is truly Ari. Only, what we’ll never know is if her scream is him or if it is me.
It’s a funny and terrifying illustration of the insecurity and insufficiency that every partner in a relationship feels at some point. Does any lover truly know his partner? And what about himself?
Keret is fully aware that for some people—and, perhaps, all of us—the answers to those questions are no. In “Unzipping,” a woman named Ella locates a small zipper beneath the tongue of her boyfriend, Tsiki. Upon unzipping it, she finds another man, Jurgen, inside, and Jurgen is very different from Tsiki. He drinks too much, insults her parents and eventually leaves her. Ella later finds she has a zipper under her tongue, too: “Ella fingered it hesitantly, and tried to imagine what she’d be like inside. It made her very hopeful, but also a little worried—mainly about freckled hands and a dry complexion.” Ella wouldn’t be the first human to have vain concerns disrupt her search for true self, and it’s Keret’s sensitivity to how easily such petty fears can derail self-discovery that makes the story poignant.
So where, if not in magic wishes, love and sex, or a chance at self-realization, is happiness to be found? In parenthood, for one. In several stories Keret explores the love between fathers and sons. His fathers are often beleaguered by divorce or difficult marriages, but they struggle to do right by their children, even when it involves lying.
In the final story in the book, “What Animal Are You?,” the narrator is a writer whose son is enamored of asking the titular question of people, particularly the whores who visit an upstairs neighbor. But the boy puts the question to a German television producer who is in the family’s home, taping a segment on the father.
“I’m not an animal,” she laughs, running her long fingernails through his hair. “I’m a monster. A monster that came from across the ocean to eat pretty little children like you.” “She says she’s a songbird,” I translate to my son with impeccable naturalness. “She says she’s a red-feathered songbird, who flew here from a faraway land.”
Fatherhood, for Keret, is one of the few places where a man can translate the world’s grim facts into something palatable, even something magical. And if lying in certain cases is the best way to protect a child—and maybe one’s self—from a more ragged form of reality, Keret’s characters show no compunction about it. Many of them, like Keret and like the father, are storytellers. They recognize that, no matter the question, inventing a fiction is often the only way to provide the answer we need to hear.