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A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

A Horse Walks into a Bar sounds like the opening of a joke. And it is – one of the jokes told to the Israeli stand-up comedian Dovaleh who is the central character of this short novel. Dovaleh is on stage in a club in Netanya, a town in Israel, and the reader must witness his profoundly unsettling performance. Its description is a tour de force. David Grossman succeeds in telling Dovaleh’s story through the point of view of a member of the audience. We are held, like the narrator, until his act is over. We are pinioned by this man who flays himself alive in our presence. It’s a bleak tale.

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

This novella was translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen and it won the International Man Booker Prize in 2017. I didn’t expect to read it, but it was chosen for one of my reading groups and it gripped me from the start.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is without chapters and with some flashbacks that link to the comedian’s performance. To begin with David Grossman builds the world of the club in which Dovaleh is performing. The descriptions of the performance, together with the comedian’s repartee are vividly done in the present tense. Here’s an example:

He slowly walks towards a worn, overstuffed red armchair on the right-hand side of the stage. Perhaps it too – like the big copper urn – is left over from an old play. He collapses in it with a sigh, sinks further and further down until it threatens to swallow him up.

People stare at their drinks, swirl their glasses of wine and peek distractedly at their little bowls of nuts and pretzels.

Silence.

Then muffled giggles. He looks like a little boy in a giant piece of furniture. I notice that some people are trying not to laugh out loud, avoiding his eyes, as though afraid to get mixed up in some convoluted calculus he is conducting with himself. Perhaps they feel, as I do, that in some way they already are embroiled in the calculus and in the man himself more than they intended to be. He slowly lifts his feet, displaying the high, almost feminine heels of his boots. The giggles grow louder, until laughter washes over the entire club.

He kicks his feet and flutters his arms as if drowning, yells and sputters, and finally uproots himself from the depths of the armchair, leaps up and stands a few steps away from it, panting and staring fearfully. The audience laughs with relief – good old slapstick – and he gives them a threatening glare, but they laugh even harder. … (17-18)

This extract captures the descriptive powers of the writing, but it also illustrates the unsettling nature of the story being told. The audience is not sure what is happening. And the reader comes to see that the performer is manipulating the audience.

And we ask the question, as the narrator does: why has Dovaleh asked him to attend?

The tension is heightened as the evening wears on. The narrator is forced to remember his childhood connection with Dovaleh. As the comedian moves his act into the story of his own childhood, our narrator is forced to see what he did not see at the time, and worse, what he did not do to protect the juvenile Dovaleh.

As readers we too want to find the truth of what happened to the boy, the outsider, with strange parents, and strange behaviours. The tension is sustained until the bleakness of the revelations is almost unbearable. His long journey from the cadet camp to a funeral is stretched to the limits. It is on this road trip that Dovaleh hears the opening lines of the joke about the horse, but there is no humour in his performance now.

David Grossman

David Grossman in 2015

David Grossman was born in Israel in 1954. Our press has suggested that he is ‘an outspoken left-wing peace activist’ and that he ‘epitomises Israeli left-leaning cultural elite’ (both quoted on Wikipedia). You can say that the novella is a description of someone forced to flay themselves in public. David Grossman’s son was killed in action in Israel. As he remained a critic of Israeli policy he too has had to face public dissection. Perhaps Israel is flaying itself before the eyes of the world, although David Grossman has not dealt directly with Israeli politics in his fiction. A Horse Walks into a Bar is to some extent a meditation on grief, and on the scars of childhood, and the scars of war. It is all these, but more. Above all it is a powerful work of literature.

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, published by Vintage 2016. 198pp. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Winner of Man Booker International Prize 2017.

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