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Israeli novelist David Grossman: “has long been a vital witness, a truth teller about his country”. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

A Horse Walks into a Bar review: a polemic of unusual power

David Grossman’s novel about a stand-up comedian is shocking, raw and eloquent

A snail is attacked by a couple of tortoises. When later questioned by the police, the bewildered mollusc can only offer, “It all happened so quickly.” Elsewhere, there is this man whose parrot is excessively foul-tongued and forces him to take desperate measures. He has threatened the bird but it continues to swear. Finally the owner puts it in a freezer and waits. After a while he opens the door and the parrot is at last chastened. It begins conversing in polite, formal English. Yet it does have a question. It wants to know what the chicken had done.

They aren’t bad jokes. But after all the audience was expecting them and more when they paid to experience an evening of rigorous stand-up at a comedy club in a small Israeli town. Dovaleh G works hard for his money and delivers a performance that pushes him to his limits. It is not easy either on the men and women gathered who came in search of gags and are instead presented with a harrowing exploration of a man’s life. Several people leave. Yet those who stay, for whatever reason, end up learning a great deal about what it means to be alive, to have been hurt and, above all, how difficult it is to remember, or rather to have to live with the relentless memory of it all.

Israeli author David Grossman’s stark new work is daring and unsettling; his comedian is a testing individual. Initially he is not all that likable: in his opening patter he insults the town. He pretends to be confused about the venue and immediately injects crude humour, then selects a female sitting at a table and mocks her about the various cosmetic procedures she may have undertaken. So far, so unfunny; yet on he goes, brash and aggressive – “Why are you idiots laughing? That joke was about you!”

There are two people present who seem to know him. One is a tiny woman, alone and tragic, with her own story. She may be a plant, a part of the act. It soon becomes clear exactly who she is and her courage and loyalty become vital to the book. The other person, the narrator, is a former judge. He has been asked to come by the comedian. They have a shared history, albeit an ancient one, having known each other as boys. The comedian needs this man to be present and it is a brilliant device. The judge, absorbed and horrified throughout, and often moved, acts as a conduit for the reader.

Voice of reason

The narrative soon settles into an long evening’s journey into hell. Grossman as a commentator is a voice of reason; he has long been a vital witness, a truth teller about his country. His non-fiction is astute, his fiction ambitious, at times earnest, but always important, ever since the publication of his debut work, The Smile of the Lamb (1983; English translation 1991), the first Israeli work of literature to deal with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Even at their most whimsical, his stories possess a driving logic. He became internationally famous when See Under: Love (1986), strongly influenced by Günter Grass, was published in English in 1990.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is unlike anything Grossman has yet done. It may commence with an irritatingly macho swagger, heavy with innuendo, which appears utterly out of character, but it settles and becomes a devastating work. Jessica Cohen’s translation from the Hebrew builds on and consolidates her achievement with Grossman’s masterwork, To the End of the Land (2008; English translation 2010). In that novel, Ora, a mother eager to celebrate her son’s impending release from army service, is distraught when he immediately re-enlists and returns to action for a major offensive. She believes that by being on the move, she will keep him alive. That novel was completed in the harrowing aftermath of the death of Grossman’s son, Uri, who was killed in 2006 in Lebanon, two days before the UN ceasefire. In common with Ora, Grossman had undertaken a long walk while waiting for Uri to complete his army service and fulfil his dream of travelling the world before becoming an actor.

Falling Out of Time, which was nominated for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award, is a prose poem written in the form of a folk tale in which various characters led by a bereaved father who becomes the Walking Man, mourn their dead children. It is an outpouring of communal grief and echoes the wandering in the desert in the Bible.

Power of memory

In his 2007 Arthur Miller ‘Freedom to Write’ address, Grossman spoke of the way Uri’s death “now permeates every minute of my life”. The power of memory he said “is indeed great and heavy”. His new novel resonates with memory and the damage it can do. The comedian goads the audience into acknowledging his grief and the experiences which have shaped him into the man he is: aged 57 with failed marriages and children who barely know him. As a boy he had joked and clowned, and walked about on his hands – his method of avoiding the world – and attempted to protect his mother from her memories of life back in Europe. All the while though, he had tried – not entirely successfully – to evade the ready hands of his father, an angry, lost soul.

The comedian’s banter is relentless, ever shifting in gear and tone, as he gauges his listeners. The judge watches, wincing at the revelations and at his own failure to respond when he should have, all those years ago. It is a shocking, raw and eloquent book. Grossman has pushed down deep into the wounded heart of a despairing man: “I have a thousand tricks for not being, I’m a world champion at not being . . . When he used to hit me, I’d practise stopping my heartbeat.” Frantic and deliberate, Dovaleh confronts his past. Although most of the people leave, some remain intent on hearing his story. It is a triumph of sorts for the exhausted performer. As for Grossman, he has written a polemic of unusual power. It is a lamentation and a plea for compassion and empathy.

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