Surprise Party

by Etgar Keret

Issue #146 March 2nd, 2011Sold Out!

Edited by Pei-Ling Lue


Three people are waiting at an intercom. A weird moment. More precisely, an awkward moment, uncomfortable.

“You’re here for Avner’s birthday too?” one of them, a guy with a graying mustache, asks the guy who pressed the buzzer. The guy who pressed the buzzer nods. The third one, tall with a Band-Aid on his nose, nods too. “No kidding,” the mustache massages his neck nervously, “you’re friends of his?” They both nod. A female voice rings out from the intercom.

“Come on up, the twenty-first floor,” and then the buzz that opens the door. The elevator buttons only go up to 21; our Avner lives in the penthouse.

On the way up, the mustache confesses that he doesn’t really know Avner. The mustache is just the manager of the bank in Ramat Aviv where Avner and Pnina Katzman have an account. He has never met them, didn’t start at that branch till two months ago. Before that he managed a smaller branch in Ra’anana. That’s why he was surprised when Pnina called to invite him to this party, but she insisted, said that Avner would be so happy.

Etgar Keret

Born in Tel Aviv in 1967, Etgar Keret is one of Israel’s bestselling authors. His books are published in 29 languages and have won international acclaim. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, Zoetrope and read on NPR’s This American Life.

In 2007 Keret co-directed his first feature film, Jellyfish (“Meduzot”), which won three prizes in the Cannes film festival, including the prestigious Camera d’Or. In that same year, Wristcutters: A Love Story, an American feature film based on a novella written by Keret, was nominated by the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.

In 2010, Keret was honored in France with the decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Keret has received the Israeli Book Publishers’ Association’s Platinum Prize several times. He has also been awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for literature, and the Ministry of Culture’s Cinema Prize. Since 1998, Keret’s stories are part of the Israeli high school literature curriculum.

Q&A by Pei-Ling Lue

PL: Where did the idea for this story come from?
EK: It came during a time when I experienced some writer’s block. It was really frustrating. Unlike some artistic portrayals of this situation that I’ve read and seen, to me, it never felt as if you’re empty or drained. It feels just the opposite: you not only have a strong yearning to write, but you also have the bursting emotions, the skill, the vocabulary, everything. The only thing that is missing is the story itself.

The experience of waiting in my studio for a story to come felt very much like waiting for an honored guest at a surprise party. It feels very much like a dvd put on pause in the middle of a scene where somebody is falling off a cliff. Everybody in the room has all those energies and feelings that can’t be expressed until the guy enters the door and turns on the light.
PL: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
EK: Most of my stories are plot-driven in one way or the other, while this one was about a group of people waiting for someone who doesn’t arrive. So structuring a developing story in a situation that is very static was a real challenge for me.
PL: This story starts out in the points of view of Mustache, Band-Aid, and Eyebrows, and then there’s a shift into Pnina’s voice toward the end. Did you know from the start that this story would make this shift and can you tell us a little bit on how you decided on this structure?
EK: I knew from the beginning that the development in the story would be more structural than factual. Since I didn’t want to add a lot of actions and plot changes to the story, the change I looked for was found in the end with Pnina’s POV. It gives us, for the first time, some real perspective and an experience of this guy we were all waiting for. I didn’t think about it in the beginning, but it was real natural. Throughout the story, the reader got almost everybody else’s POV, including the guard at Avner’s office. Everyone except Pnina. After I wrote the paragraph in which Mustache tries to kiss her, I felt that I must have her thoughts too or she’ll remain just an object.
PL: “Surprise Party” is translated from Hebrew. Do you feel that your stories gain or lose anything in translation? What has been your experience of the translation process?
EK: Hayim Nachman Bialik, Israel’s national poet, said once that reading a work in translation is like kissing a woman through a handkerchief. I’m privileged to work with, probably, the best translators from Hebrew in the world, but even with them the process can be frustrating. Different languages have different anatomies and different psyches. You just can’t say the same sentence in two different languages. Many times these inherent differences call for compromises and changes in the text. The translators I work with are extremely creative and heroic about this long and tiring process. They deserve a medal. I honestly believe that their work is much tougher than that of a writer—they must be as creative and invent a new text in the translated language, with the added restraint of having to be loyal to the original text.
PL: I’ve read two of your short story collections and most of your stories are very short. Those short shorts have a very different energy, like small explosions. This story had more of a slow burn quality, if that makes any sense. Is your writing method different when you work on a short short as opposed to a longer story?
EK: There was something in this story that was about the wait. In a very early draft I realized that this piece has to be longer for that wait to have an effect on the reader. It did feel different from writing my usually much shorter shorts. There was something in the sterility of the situation and the characters that had made me write something that felt more like constructing a structure from a lot of different thoughts that will, in the end, feel like one story, which was very different from the homogenous feeling of a monolithic story bursting out which I often have with my shorter shorts.
PL: How long did it take you to complete this story?
EK: About five months. But I wrote other things in that period too.
PL: What are you working on now?
EK: I’m not really sure. I published a collection of stories in Israel a few months back and I know from past experience that it takes me at least a year after I finish a project just to be able to articulate to myself what I’m working on now.
PL: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
EK: “There are probably a few other people out there who’ll love what you write as much as you do. You just have to find them.”
PL: Will you ever tell me the secret behind what happened to Band-Aid’s nose?
EK: If I do I’ll get into trouble with the Mossad.