Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (Etger Keret)l

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (Vintage 2012)

I love this short story collection. Each one is just so brilliant and form-defying. These are the kind of stories that plague my dreams and nightmares each day. I wake up seeing these people, awaking to the call of their longings and threats, peeking from the edge of my seat in some miraculously acquired human condition. Etger Keret is Israeli, and he penned these stories in Hebrew originally. These have been translated by Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, and Nathan Englander. My personal favourite is the title story.

The stories are set in his head, and the author prefers to be identified as Jewish than Israeli. His writing style reminds me very much of Ibn-e-Safi’s own witty parables that are as absurd as they are rational, goofy yet urgent in all their strangeness. Discerning is his ear for detail that clamours above the noise around us; his prose elevates rather than distracts from this noise:

“It all started with a dream. A short, fuzzy dream about his dead mother. In this dream the two of them were sitting on a straw mat in the middle of a clear white surface that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Next to them on this infinite white surface was a bubble gum machine with a bubble top, the old-fashioned kind where you put a coin in the slot, turn the handle – and out comes a bubble gum. And in his dream, Robbie’s mother told him that the afterworld was driving her up the wall, because the people were good, but there were no cigarettes. Not just no cigarettes, no coffee. No radio. Nothing.”

Lies have character and soul, and are full seeing sentient beings. Time has its nails bitten. Cheesus Christ is a restaurant that serves hamburgers without cheese and is run by a clinically depressed CEO who refuses to answer e-mails. The situation is absurd, but the problem real. Wisdom abounds the nonsense: “When a dedicated employee turns to her employer with a problem, especially one related to the workplace, the least he could do is acknowledge her existence.” There is a loner who breakfasts alone in the cafe but learns to vicariously through others. Needles prick less than a father’s touch in another. Everyone is going through a hundred and one dress rehearsals; each character is constantly improvising. (“The fish’s secretary asked her to wait until he’d finished an international conference call with his partners in Taiwan”). These are coming-alive stories — no flat characters or dull plot points — only honking until “your heart’s content.” Another story’s narrator eulogizes his dog his dear friend his lover who talks to him in his dreams wearing a grey suit advising in human barritone, “everyone knows there’s no real money in developing the human race. Or any other race, for that matter. But since it’s [ecology] a new field that’s wide open taxationally, there’s nothing to stop me from submitting a mountain of receipts.” Then there’s the story about a man with a zipper mouth. Taking advantage of the fact that her lover slept with his mouth open, Ella slips her finger under his tongue to find a zip! But when she pulls at it, her lover Tsiki opens up “like an oyster”, and inside is Jurgen, a far more alive character. “Work is like a moustache,” he says, “it went out of style long ago.” These are just few glimpses into the quirky world of this joyous collection. All these characters are inward looking and draw their hallucinatory powers and worldly knowledge from this skill. If there is a writer whose fiction style I might identify with, it would be Etgar Keret! Ibn-e-Safi and Edwidge Danticat are others. Rushdie started it (for me), although his prose is trenchant with politics and histories and epic (at its peak), way more verbose and magical nihilist in comparison to Keret’s clever yet contained, dense yet ticklish, deliberate yet no less invisible storytelling. Style stems from a writer’s morality and political axis perhaps. How and where he grew up and when. And although I have enjoyed a lot of postmodern fiction in life, those works have often brimmed with salient iron structures and heroes and heroines who eschewed those; I don’t see any of that resistance functioning as a plot device in Keret’s work. His work is almost post-resistance and by that I don’t by any stretch mean lazy. Like a book of intelligent jokes and riddles, it offers momentous wit and humour. One of Keret’s narrators describe this work best as “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.” The true test of his storytelling however may lie in whether he is able to sustain an entire novel on the strings of his absurdo-realism and something I wonder often about, i.e., could Etgar Keret pull off a marathon?

The Wave of Grief

Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala

Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami
by Sonali Deraniyagala

I remember returning to Chennai for a winter break from college when the tsunami had struck. Both my grandparents were alive then. I remember strolling the ghost town a couple of days after the storm had gone. The roads were desolate stretches and fishermen’s boats had been swept off the shores, parked on the main road. The consequences were worse in the Andamans and further south in neighbouring Sri Lanka. Few mainstream international news channels covered the disaster with the verve or gumption reserved for the U.S. elections or the progressing war in Iraq then.

Colombo native, globe-trotting economist Sonali Deraniyagala tells a harrowing tale of loss as a survivor of the December 2004 tsunami when she was holidaying with her English husband, two sons, and parents. She loses them all to the “wave” which goes on to acquire treacherous import throughout the course of the book. The wave of her grief is the arc of this tale, one masterful account of a holiday gone wrong, a life that could have been, a life that was, and a life that stopped. Her life is divided into the two epochs of before the wave and after, seven years into her grief and she is still haunted, “I trip up constant, between this life and that… A rush of footsteps in the apartment above me is all it takes… I think it’s the boys, upstairs, another scuffle. ‘Knock it off,’ I almost shout. ‘I am trying to Mum’ I hear Vik, ribbing me as he aims a ball at his brother’s head. Then I have to accept that I don’t have them. I am in New York.”

London based economist Sonali’s narrative explodes with homesickness, forever present, drenched with mad, excruciating details of her routine whether she is reminiscing about Steve’s recipe of homemade raan (Indian lamb) and his preparation, her sons’ fights, smells, repartees, or dealing with the pressures of adjusting to her life after memory –addressing old enquiring neighbours to whom she presented a casual reserve or forgetfulness feigning the existence of her dead family somewhere.

And grief is entirely what constitutes her story, not her husbands’, not her sons’, not her country’s, but hers. She alternates often between memory and belief, “The more I remember, the more inconsolable I will be, I’ve told myself. But now increasingly I don’t tussle with my memories. I want to remember. I want to know. Perhaps I can better tolerate being inconsolable now. Perhaps I suspect that remembering won’t make me any more inconsolable. Or less.” Her grief is fed by catharsis, rage, anger, depression, resistance to fate, failed suicide attempts; this is her self-actualization moment. Others who have lost will find empathy here, those who have not will grapple with empathy humbly.

Events in history can sadden those unconnected with it. Man-made disasters evoke only slightly lesser awe than natural ones that defy expectation or odds provoking more fear than the former. The devastation wreaked by the tsunami acquired gothic proportions, became associated with myth, superstition, and rendered human beings powerless. It is this despair that seethes through the sparse, cutting prose of a woman who has lost everything except her spirit. This is the story of Sonali’s triumph over a storm, grief, and over every other shortcoming in faith. Witness searing wit, a breathtaking journey and a brave memoir that deserves every prize in the genre simply for its regenerative power. The next book I am reading The Siege about the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks will also cover grief I know, but from a different footing.