small textlarge text

Etgar Keret

A Foreign Language

For his fifty-first birthday we bought Dad a pipe. Dad said thanks, ate a piece of the cake that Mom had baked, and kissed everyone. Then he went into the bathroom to shave. He was one of those fanatical shavers, who go over each section three times, and emerge perfectly smooth, and without a nick. In my entire life I've never seen Dad nick himself even once.

Some people know French or Italian, all kinds of languages. That they studied by correspondence or in courses run by the consulate. Take my older brother, he studied German once at the Goethe Institute. You never know when a foreign language might come in handy. Not only on trips abroad, sometimes it could actually save your life. My mother in the Holocaust and the German language, for instance, is a good example.

Once my father had finished going over each section of his face three times, he started on the back of his neck. The razor wasn't built for that, and he had to spend half the time pulling out the thick hairs that got in the way of the blades. It was a hard and thankless task, and he was dying to call me into the bathroom to tell me about it. He wanted to tell me something about how if he hadn't married my mother he would definitely have gone to Scandinavia and built himself a cabin in some godforsaken forest, and sat on his balcony every evening, smoking his pipe.

My girlfriend once asked me to tell her I loved her in a different language, an exotic one. And no matter how hard I tried and tried and thought and thought I just couldn't think of a thing. "Hebrew isn't good enough?" I tried. "Pig Latin? Atin-lay ig-pay?" What if I say it twice? If I really and truly mean it?" It wasn't good enough. It didn't do it for her, and she just went on and on screaming, she can be that way sometimes. In the end she threw a heavy ashtray at my head, one with an insurance company logo, and I had blood running down my forehead. "Love me, love me," she yelled. And I tried as hard as I could to think back over the things that the Russian guys at work had taught me, but the only thing that came into my head was swearwords.

Dad went over the back of his neck five times. When he was through, and ran his hand over it, it was at least as smooth as his cheeks. The reason he wanted to build the cabin in a forest in Scandinavia was mainly because of the quiet. My dad was very partial to quiet. When my brother and I cried as children it bugged him so much that sometimes he just felt like strangling us. My dad took a can of special glue and a thin piece of wood like a popsicle stick from under the sink. He dipped the stick in the tin can and started spreading glue over the back of his head. It was a complicated procedure, because he couldn't see the surface he was covering, which is like spreading butter over a slice of bread when it's facing down. But my father didn't lose his cool, and kept spreading the sections of the back of his head very patiently and with the utmost precision. While he was doing it, he hummed a Hungarian ditty that went more or less like this: "Ozo sep? Ozo sep? Okineki semmet lep. Okineki semet fakete."

"Who's the most beautiful? Who's the most beautiful? The one with the dark eyes. He's the most beautiful." And after the ashtray on the head she left me. To this day I have no idea why. But to learn from something, you don't always have to understand it. Learn something important. My mother, for example, told the German officer not to kill her. She'd make it worth his while, because if he didn't kill her she'd sleep with him. Which was far less common than rape in those days. And then, when they were doing it, she pulled a knife out of her belt and slashed his chest open, just like she used to open chicken breasts to stuff with rice for the Sabbath meal.

My father put the plug in the bathtub drain and turned on the water, not too hot and not too cold. Just right. Then he lay down in the bathtub holding his neck up above the water, and reached for the faucets, like so, lying on his back. The faucets were too high. My father relaxed his neck muscles and let the back of his neck stick to the bottom of the bathtub. He did everything he could to lift up his head but he couldn't. The flier that came with the glue promised that no amount of water in the world would succeed in removing it. And the plug – he was wearing shoes. Let's see you pull a plug with your shoes tied. Meanwhile, in my room, my brother and I were having an argument. I said Dad really liked his present, my brother said he didn't. We couldn't arrive at a clear conclusion, because with my father, you never know. Bloo-bloo-bloo, the water in the bathtub murmured in Scandinavian. "Nur Gott weiss," my brother said, showing off his German. "Nur Gott weiss."

"A Foreign Language" first appeared in the book, Four Stories (The B. G. Rudolph Lectures in Judaic Studies) published by Syracuse University Press.

Translated by Miriam Shlesinger

➥ Bio