Saturday, April 12, 2008

Etgar Keret, "Knockoff Venus"

Etgar Keret's "Knockoff Venus" (which is online at and is part of his new collection The Girl On the Fridge) is an oddly affecting little tale which somehow manages to be prosaic and fabulist at the same time. Prosaic in that it involves the lovesick musings of a lonely office worker, and fabulist in that the object of his crush is Venus - yes, the Roman goddess of beauty and love.

How an immortal deity came to work as a lowly copyist in an Israeli office is never explicitly explained, other than her vague reference to having emigrated, with several other gods, from deplorable conditions somewhere else. But other than her beauty - which has narrator quite dazzled - she seems remarkably ordinary: she speaks only bad Hebrew, has questionable taste in men (which is, admittedly, to the narrator's benefit) and only dully goes through the desultory motions of her job, as the narrator describes with Keret's typically deadpan humor:

Venus worked from eight-thirty to six, sometimes later, Xeroxing reams and collating them into neat stacks. Even in that position, sweaty and bent over the machine, wincing against the flashing light, she was still the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I wanted to say so, but I couldn’t get up the nerve. In the end, I wrote it down on a piece of paper and left it on her desk. The next morning, the note was waiting for me, along with fifty copies.

Despite the lightness of Keret's touch, the unspoken implications of the narrative are considerably more troubling: the narrator's world is one in which Roman gods, who in antiquity ruled over all of mankind and the natural world, are now forced to work menial jobs in Israel which, while an improvement over the gods' former home, has long been a site of ethnic tensions and violence and thus is far from paradise. The gods scuffle along, working as movers and mechanics and office temps, grateful for their new situations but still far removed from their past glories. They have lost any semblance of the supernatural, and seem all but powerless to change their plight. Our world, Keret seems to say, has declined so much that even the gods are at a loss to do anything about it.

Or maybe that's nothing more than my overwrought interpretation. Maybe Keret didn't mean to imply any of that at all. Maybe he just wrote a quirky story about a mortal and a degraded goddess making the best of their humble situations and falling in love. Or maybe Keret meant to deliver both: a love story with weighty undercurrents. The final line of the story resolves none of the above, and is as charmingly ambiguous as the rest - from the narrator's comment it's unclear whether he thinks the relationship will never last and he'll soon need something else to occupy his time, or if the relationship is the first step toward the domesticity and stability he desires.

Whatever the interpretation, Keret makes the reader think - which is what all good storytellers do. And Keret is certainly one of the good ones.

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