Yes, I know you will see Etgar Keret touted as a surrealist, and that the name Kafka will crop up in searching for parallels to his very short short stories, even though in fact they are unique. And certainly there is often a surreal element there; I noticed it especially in the twenty tales collected in one of his previous books, GAZA BLUES. But what strikes me more than anything in the three dozen stories in this new collection is how well they reflect the pathos of everyday life: loneliness, unrequited love, marital tensions, the difficulties of being a divorced parent. Even when Keret uses a surreal device to explore his theme, as he does in about a third of these stories, the point behind them is as often as not very real, and a little sad.
Take one story in the book, very short, only a page and a half long. Entitled WHAT DO WE HAVE IN OUR POCKETS?, it begins with its narrator's partial inventory of the content of his pockets. A postage stamp, for instance, in case he comes upon a beautiful girl next to a red mailbox on a rainy night with a stampless envelope in her hand. And he'll help her. And when she coughs because of the cold and the rain, he'll offer her a cough drop. "'What else do you have in your pockets?' she'll ask [...] and I'll answer without hesitation: Everything you'll ever need, my love. Everything you'll ever need."
Some of my other favorites are BLACK AND BLUE, a sad little story about two almost-lovers, an American and an Israeli, ships that pass in the Tel Aviv night. Or TEAMWORK and BIG BLUE BUS, two quite realistic stories about a divorced father trying to be a good parent to his young son. Or BITCH, about a widower on a French train, who sees his late wife's eyes in an old lady's poodle, and apologizes to it for her death. Or CREATIVE WRITING, about a couple who separately take fiction courses in the wake of a miscarriage, their fantastic stories saying more about them than any of the connecting narrative.
And, yes, there are surreal stories here too. The title piece, for example, is about the author being forced to write at gunpoint, each turn in the story immediately reflected in the situation that frames it, like that Escher drawing of a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand. Or LIELAND, a fantasy that reminds me a little of Amos Oz, in which the lies we tell in everyday life take up residence in a parallel universe. Or PICK A COLOR, a parable about racism that ends with the appearance of a sad silvery God in a wheelchair: "The yellow priest fell to his knees and begged His forgiveness. If a stronger God had come to his church, he probably would have carried on cursing him, even if he had to go to hell for it. But seeing the silvery, disabled God made him feel regret and sorrow, and he really did want His forgiveness."
I could go on. Keret seldom writes explicitly about religion, though a kind of secular humanism underlies everything he does write. His stories are virtually apolitical, though he himself is not, and the facts of Israeli life (army service, security, suicide bombers) make occasional appearances in the background. His longer stories are seldom as good as his short ones, but most of those are extraordinary, the surprise jolt of offbeat invention leading almost every time to a deeper appreciation of the familiar