Tiny tales that break the rules

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Missing Kissinger

Etgar Keret

Chatto & Windus, 11.99

ON THE inside back cover of his new book of stories, Missing Kissinger, Etgar Keret appears with a black cloth around his mouth, staring into the camera with one eye.

Keret is one of literature's freest, zaniest spirits - just as his photograph is not what we expect of the Israeli writer, so his stories stick their tongue out at conventional notions of "the literary".

They are no more than four or five pages long, their sentences are very short, and their tone laconic ("Soon as...", a typical Keret sentence begins, or "Truth is..."). The characters, mostly everyday Joes puzzled by life, work within a limited vocabulary.

Indeed, Keret's stories are all tricks of voice, of people taking impossible things seriously and grave matters lightly, so that we both see their point and relish the confusion. In the Keretian universe anything can happen; his stories have the strangest premises.

"Suddenly, I could do it," begins one story, 'Freeze'. "I'd say 'Freeze' and everyone would freeze, just like that, in the middle of the street." In another two boys dig for dinosaur eggs in their backyard and find one, and another commandeers an army of ants.

In an essay on 'quickness' in literature, Italo Calvino noted how in some works "the speed at which events follow one another conveys a feeling of the ineluctable". That remark might serve as a summary of Keret's method.

The stories abound with splendid gags. In 'Venus Lite', all the gods come down to Earth to work, and Venus arrives in the narrator's office to operate the photocopier. The narrator is going through a hard time and he falls in love with beautiful Venus immediately, but can't work up the courage to tell her.

"In the end, I wrote it down on a piece of paper and left it on the desk for her. The next morning, the note was waiting for me, along with fifty photocopies."

In 'Drops', one of Keret's many perplexing women learns that someone has invented a medicine against feeling alone, and decides to leave her boyfriend before he cheats on her. The medicine comes in two forms, drops and spray. She chooses drops. "Just because she doesn't want to feel alone, there's no reason to harm the ozone layer."

Just as Keret's stories are anti-literary, so too are they anti-romantic. Just like those drops, they are a potent pick-me-up.

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