Thursday, January 18, 2018

David Grossman; A Horse Walks into a Bar: review

David Grossman; A Horse Walks into a Bar: review

[Published in India Today mag, July 10, 2017:]

A horse walks into a bar, begins an old Jewish anecdote. The barman turns around to him and says, ‘Why the long face?’

In Israeli writer David Grossman’s Man Booker Prize-winning A Horse Walks Into a Bar, the ‘long face’ belongs to the protagonist, Dov Greenstein, a 57-year old stand-up comic in a basement club at Netanya (a coastal town near the West Bank). One evening he proclaims he is planning to enact the ‘mother of all shows’.

In the audience is Avishai Lazar, his childhood friend, the narrator of the book.  A former judge who retired early due to his inability to control his anger, Lazar has somehow been persuaded by his old friend to turn up at this performance, even though they haven’t met for forty years.  ‘I want you to see me, really see me’ he tells Avishai and later to tell him what he sees.

Also in the crowd is Azulai – a tiny ‘medium’ with a speech defect – whom Dov protected from abuse when they were neighbours. Watching the show, Azulai wonders what has happened to Dov; he used to be a ‘good boy’. Now, Dov is irreverent and offensive, and his jokes, though familiar and clichéd, are also sexist and misogynistic.

As the evening progresses, the show turns from a standup performance to an autobiographical narrative in which a disillusioned Dov reveals horrifying details about his past life – his violent father and his helpless mother who worked for the Israeli military industry.

David Grossman
Avishai remembers Dov as a perpetual victim of bullies at an Army Camp that the two of them attended as children, recalling an incident in which Dov walked on his hands to escape a beating while Avishai stayed a silent spectator. The author hints at something more than an ordinary friendship between the two, but leaves the reader guessing.

Dov’s audience, however, wants jokes and is both impatient and uncomfortable at his stories. Avishai wonders, ‘How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into its hostages?’ Gradually, the audience too begins to leave.

The whole novel takes place over a period of two hours with long digressions into the past, into Israeli history and politics woven into the personal life of a broken man. According to Nick Barley, chair of the 2017 judging panel, ‘… every sentence counts, every
word matters in this supreme example of the writer’s craft.’ It is slightly difficult to agree with this view. Jokes that tickle Dov’s audience seem either hackneyed or incomprehensible, especially to a reader unfamiliar with the environment and context.  Language and expressions may be simple but don’t qualify as awesome. Of course translation has its challenges and that fact cannot be discounted. But these factors do influence the overall appeal of the book. 

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