A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman

(Tr. Jessica Cohen)

“How inadequate are the expressions our faces offer us.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or do both simultaneously with this one. A novel I would have probably never looked twice at otherwise, A Horse Walks into a Bar is a hilarious, yet poigant novel which addresses grief and the question of how we use art in our lives: be it, words, music, painting or in this case, stand up comedy. Do we use it to escape or enrich, augment or avoid, to harmonize or hightail out of our own little hell.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is set in one room on one evening in Israel and follows a stand-up comedian essentially breaking down on stage. The novel is narrated by an old childhood friend of our comedian, Dovaleh G, who has been summoned to the show and sitting in the back of the room we too are thrust into a show that wasn’t quite what we had expected. As our protagonist, Dovaleh, disintegrates before his audience, many audience members get up and leave, hurl abuse as others support and encourage him prompting us as readers to ask ourselves, what would we do in the same situation.

“He is out on a limb that is getting heavier than the whole tree. The crowd can feel it too. People look at each other and shift restlessly. They understand less and less what it is that they have unwillingly become partners to. I have no doubt they would have got up and left long ago, or even booed him off stage, if not for the temptation that is so hard to resist – the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”

The novel also focuses on the link between the private and public. Dovaleh’s life has been torn apart by grief and as he exposes this wound that he’s lived with he crumbles in the most public of places. As the evening progresses it is easier to differentiate where the acting gives way to real life and the audience’s reactions become divided.

“[…] sometimes I think that the most cunning form of cruelty is indifference.” *

As well as grief and its’ role in society, Grossman uses the novel as a metaphor for the Israel / Palestine conflict, however, don’t let this put you off as it’s so much more than politics. The writing is also astounding: mixing Dovaleh’s crass/hilarious stand-up with an imbued beauty and subtleness.

“We covered birthdays, which as you know are a day of reckoning, of soul-searching, at least for those who have a soul, and I’ll tell you that personally, in my state, I just don’t have the resources to maintain one. Seriously, souls demand non-stop upkeep, don’t they? It never ends! Every single day, all day long, you gotta haul it in for servicing. Am I right or am I right?”

Grossman’s novel is emotional and unsettling and by the halfway point, I struggled to put it down, even just to breathe. While it hasn’t been a 5 star read, upon reflection it is a steady 4 and I can wholeheartedly see it’s merit. (I found it’s writing style reminded me a little of last year’s MB longlisted Coetzee novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, although more memorable.) And after reading an interview with Grossman I am definitely adding him to my never-ending TBR pile of translated fiction, (he has quite an extensive back-list to look forward to!)

“I think that being a writer brings you into contact with the endless options of every human situation, in every human situation there is an enormous arsenal of options, of potential, of passions, of energies.” *

A Horse Walks into a Bar is brave, unrelenting and brutally human, and even if you don’t think it’s your ‘thing’ please do pick it up and give it a try. I have a sneaky suspicion that you may not be disappointed.

     *  from, DAVID GROSSMAN: ISRAELIS ‘MORE PRONE TO FANATICISM AND FUNDAMENTALISM’ – an interview with euronews.
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