When I got to seventh grade, they had a psychologist come to school and put us through a bunch of adjustment tests. He showed me twenty different flashcards, one by one, and asked me what was wrong with the pictures. They all seemed fine to me, but he insisted and showed me the first picture again—the one with the kid in it. “What’s wrong with this picture?” he asked in a tired voice. I told him the picture seemed fine. He got really mad and said, “Can’t you see the boy in the picture doesn’t have any ears?” The truth is that when I looked at the picture again, I did see that the kid had no ears. But the picture still seemed fine to me. The psychologist classed me as “suffering from severe perceptual disorders,” and had me transferred to carpentry school. When I got there, it turned out I was allergic to sawdust, so they transferred me to metalworking class. I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t really enjoy it. To tell the truth, I didn’t really enjoy anything in particular. When I finished school, I started working in a factory that made pipes. My boss was an engineer with a diploma from a top technical college. A brilliant guy. If you showed him a picture of a kid without ears or something like that, he’d figure it out in no time.After work I’d stay on at the factory and make myself odd-shaped pipes, winding ones that looked like curled-up snakes, and I’d roll marbles through them. I know it sounds like a dumb thing to do, and I didn’t even enjoy it, but I went on doing it anyway.

One night I made a pipe that was really complicated, with lots of twists and turns in it, and when I rolled a marble in, it didn’t come out at the other end. At first I thought it was just stuck in the middle, but after I tried it with about twenty more marbles,
I realized they were simply disappearing. I know that everything I say sounds kind of stupid. I mean everyone knows that marbles don’t just disappear, but when I saw the marbles go in at one end of the pipe and not come out at the other end, it didn’t even strike me as strange. It seemed perfectly ok actually. That was when I decided to make myself a bigger pipe, in the same shape, and to crawl into it until I disappeared. When the idea came to me, I was so happy that I started laughing out loud. I think it was the first time in my entire life that I laughed.

From that day on, I worked on my giant pipe. Every evening I’d work on it, and in the morning I’d hide the parts in the storeroom. It took me twenty days to finish making it. On the last night it took me five hours to assemble it, and it took up about half the shop floor.

When I saw it all in one piece, waiting for me, I remembered my social studies teacher who said once that the first human being to use a club wasn’t the strongest person in his tribe or the smartest. It’s just that the others didn’t need a club, while he did. He needed a club more than anyone, to survive and to make up for being weak. I don’t think there was another human being in the whole world who wanted to disappear more than I did, and that’s why it was me that invented the pipe. Me and not that brilliant engineer with his technical college degree who runs the factory.

I started crawling inside the pipe, with no idea about what to expect at the other end. Maybe there would be kids there without ears, sitting on mounds of marbles. Could be. I don’t know exactly what happened after I passed a certain point in the pipe. All I know is that I’m here.

I think I’m an angel now. I mean, I’ve got wings, and this circle over my head and there are hundreds more here like me. When I got here they were sitting around playing with the marbles I’d rolled through the pipe a few weeks earlier.

I always used to think that Heaven is a place for people who’ve spent their whole life being good, but it isn’t. God is too merciful and kind to make a decision like that. Heaven is simply a place for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth. They told me here that people who kill themselves return to live their life all over again, because the fact that they didn’t like it the first time doesn’t mean they won’t fit in the second time. But the ones who really don’t fit in the world wind up here. They each have their own way of getting to heaven.

There are pilots who got here by performing a loop at one precise point in the Bermuda Triangle. There are housewives who went through the back of their kitchen cabinets to get here, and mathematicians who found topological distortions in space and had to squeeze through them to get here. So if you’re really unhappy down there, and if all kinds of people are telling you that you’re suffering from severe perceptual disorders, look for your own way of getting here, and when you find it, could you please bring some cards, cause we’re getting pretty tired of the marbles.

Pipes is a short story that can be found in Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and Other Stories. The collection discusses many significant issues such as love, death, morality and the meaning of life, but examines them in a light-hearted and occasionally irreverent way.This particular short story concerns a young man who fails to prove himself “normal” during adjustment tests at his school. The first paragraph describes how he is unable to notice that a boy’s ears are missing in a photo flashcard, and then to perceive that this makes the picture unusual. He describes how he is branded as having “severe perceptual disorders” and banished to carpentry school. The immediate introduction of the adjustment tests and his resultant diagnosis presents the notion that the protagonist of the story is possibly an unreliable narrator, and sets-up the premise of a character who does not “fit in” with his surroundings.

The misfortunes of the protagonist are compounded with some degree of humour when he states in the first paragraph that he was “allergic to sawdust, so they transferred [him] to metalwork class.” The idea of being shipped from regular school, to carpentry school, then to metalwork school illustrates how education systems try to categorise people, and brush people who don’t conform under the carpet. Similarly, it raises the question in the mind of the reader, why should someone who doesn’t notice have to give up on academic study?

The story dedicates only one paragraph to describing the early life of the protagonist, which highlights the way his life has to some degree passed him by since being diagnosed with difficulties. Whilst brevity is a necessary characteristic of the short story, it is significant that the narrator has reached his adult self by the end of the first paragraph of the story. At the very end of this paragraph the protagonist makes a reference to his boss, “an engineer with a diploma from a top technical college.” Here is a reference to the life that the character could have lead if he hadn’t been so early on labelled as having “severe perceptual disorders.” However, there is neither envy, admiration nor bitterness conveyed in the language that he uses to describe his boss, illustrating how little he is engaging with his world and his surroundings.

When he begins to create different shaped pipes in his free time, after the factory at which he works closes, and rolling marbles down them, he apologetically states that “it sounds like a dumb thing to do”, as though his life has been spent defending his own apparent weirdness, or perceived lack of ability. He also admits that he “didn’t even enjoy it”, suggesting that he has no outlet for his creativity that he enjoys, and that he experiences very little joy from any aspect of his life, if he chooses to spend his free time at his place of work doing something he doesn’t even enjoy.

The first notion of his enjoyment comes approximately half way through the story. He discovers that a certain shape of pipe will cause marbles to disappear as you roll them through, and decides to create one large enough to walk through it to disappear himself. He states: “When the idea came to me, I was so happy that I started laughing out loud. I think it was the first time in my entire life that I laughed.” Keret introduces the idea of heaven as a solace for people who are unable to find happiness of earth, as opposed to the traditional view that it is for people who have lead a good life. The character is never happy with his life in the story until he finds a way to exit it.

Once the pipe is built, Keret questions the nature of necessity and invention as his protagonist looks upon his pipe and realises that the reason he, and not his well-qualified boss, was able to design and invent such a complex and world-changing pipe, which can provide a link between life and an afterlife, was because he needed it more. Similarly, once he passes through the pipe to heaven, he describes the people who are there; there are mathematicians who find equations to create tears in the space-time continuum, and pilots who disappear through the Bermuda Triangle.

In the final paragraph of the story, the protagonist addresses the reader directly by using the second person. After finding his own solace from a world that doesn’t understand him, he tells us, “so, if you’re really unhappy down there, and if all kinds of people are telling you that you’re suffering from severe perceptual disorders, lok for your own way of getting here.” Whilst this sounds morbid, as though suggesting suicide, earlier in the story Keret argues that those who kill themselves do not find the solace of heaven and are forced to re-live their life, to try again. He is suggesting that you must find your own way to be happy, and if that means finding a way to escape than that is fair.

In his characteristic style, Keret ends this unsettling short story with a little comic relief, as he implores anyone seeking his heaven to bring a pack of cards, “cause we’re getting pretty tired of the marbles.” This is typical of the author and of the rest of the collection. Similarly, he uses very simplistic language and mundane imagery to explain the rather philosophical ideas and hypotheses he explores within the text. This makes the text very accessible, more so than many philosophical novels or stories, and creates an honest tone.

Comments are closed.