Author David Grossman ... an ability to play with words
A Horse Walks into a Bar
By David Grossman
Reviewed by Richelle Shem-tov
David Grossman won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for this book as did his translator Jessica Cohen.
At first, I found this incomprehensible: I found much of what I read to be offensive and I might have given it up but for Tami, my daughter's, enthusiastic appreciation. As I read more and more I became completely engrossed and finished it in an amazingly short period of time with a definite “Wow” when I closed off the last page.
From the first page to the last, the story takes place in a small bar in Netanya and tells of a one-man show given by a middle-aged stand-up comedian to a small audience of mostly middle-aged men and women, narrated or reported by a lone and sad introverted man - a former judge and a one-time school friend of the performer.
The comedian, Dovele G…, is the typical legendary “clown”. He performs and talks and tells stories of himself and others to raise laughs from his listeners. These stories cover doom, tragedy and a deeply sad and disturbed soul and life story. Only towards the end do we learn that this will be his farewell performance. He is haunted by the Holocaust, by the Israeli/Jewish condition, by a complex and unhappy relationship with his parents, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and supposed friendship. The interaction with the audience is a subtle but significant part of the narrative. Amongst them a disabled little woman who had been part of his childhood life; and with the narrator, his school-time friend, the used-to-be and still highly honored judge who has recently lost a loved wife and is himself licking his wounds. The others, sitting in the shadows, also play a part – some impatient who leave in the middle, some who have followed his shows, some a close part of his life, caring, perhaps family. Here too one senses that many are in some way connected with him and there is a suggestion of a story for each.
The humor is often vulgar – too much so for a person of my background and generation; it is often cruel and unkind, sometimes funny, more often dark and indeed tragic. It desperately begs for love and appreciation from the listeners, from the old friend, the judge.
Through his story Dovele tries to squeeze in a lifetime – an Israeli lifetime with the Holocaust hovering in his disturbed family background, the military and national education which colors all. He subtly includes, almost in passing, a bitter and highly sarcastic reflection to the occupation and Palestinian oppression.
In telling the story of the clown, the narrator, the judge allows us a glimpse into his own life, into his own love, his own story. The frantic chatter of Dovele affects him: “How did I keep turning inwards, to my own life?”
We learn, at some stage, that our tragic hero, almost ridiculous hero, is dying of cancer.
The closing pages tell of how he, the standup artist, learned of the death of his mother. Although many in the audience get up and leave somewhere along the line, it actually ends on a positive note when the judge, who had in the past rejected the one-time close friend, an outsider in the eyes of his peers, regrets this heartless attitude of a long time back and from the audience gives him full backing. He goes up to him, offers to take him home and responds to the request to write of this show, to tell Dovele's story. The stern judge does judge the clown, and himself, with sympathy, perhaps love.
As a side note to lift the doom, to make the ending less hopeless, Dovele goes up to kiss the little woman. Another woman from the audience who had watched and identified with both the clown and the judge hands our lonely narrator a small note of invitation. Yet another sits through to the end – weeping.
The descriptive powers of the author are brilliant as is his ability to play with words, bringing to life the man on the stage and those who watch him. A strange but unforgettable book, brilliantly recorded, worthy of the prize given it.