A Horse Walks into a Bar
By David Grossman (Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen)
This book slaps you in the face with every page – sometimes quite literally – with its palpable tension and heartbreak. Powerful storytelling and jokes that make you snigger in spite of yourself, David Grossman is an artist of black humour and a well deserving winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2018.
In the city of Netanya, Israel, Dovaleh G is doing a stand-up routine. He’s been doing this a long time, but tonight is different. Dovaleh is going to tell some jokes, yes, but mostly, he will tell a story. And reveal a dark and painful truth. As the night wears on and the audience thins, his strange story intensifies and you can’t help but feel that you are part of his audience. I watched this man bare his soul on a lonely stage and I now know what it feels like to watch a man relive the most horrific moments of his life. In this theatre of (comic) cruelty, explosive self-abuse sees punchlines become punches to the face. This book, this performance, is cracked, fragmentary and broken – just like the man on stage.
Grossman takes the power of performance art and instils it in this novel. One man, a stage, a spotlight and a powerful story. The darkness, the loneliness, the commitment and the power. This performance, this one-man/stand-up/freak show, is painfully awkward but deeply engrossing. It speaks to that dark part of us that seeks out, will pay to watch, someone fall apart at the seams.
“The temptation to look into another man’s hell.” (82)
Theatre, art, books, have the power to unite people. Whether that be in a moment of joy or despair, it is a comfort and a thrill to feel connected to those around us. Grossman whips the rug from under our feet repeatedly, in A Horse Walks into a Bar, by using his comedian to show us all the fetid nature of this desire we all feel. Dovaleh will make you laugh, but it’ll come with a price.
“It starts with an awkward hum, with sidelong glances, then something makes their necks swell, and within a second they’re up in the air, balloons of idiocy and liberty, released from gravity, rushing to join the one and only camp that can never be defeated: Hands together for death!” (69)
Dovaleh yearns for a reprieve that he will never allow himself. He has spent a lifetime with a weight of guilt. He has denied himself happiness, run from himself, never allowed himself to be. Except at this moment, on this stage tonight, he will be transported back to his fourteen-year-old self and take a journey to Jerusalem. He will ask a friend to see him as he really is and remember what it feels like to fill his “being to the brink. To be.” (124)