Monday, July 16, 2018

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

In David Grossman's award winning (it won the International Booker for novels in translation) novel "A Horse Walks into a Bar", a 57-year old comedian comes on stage at a supper club in the Israeli town of Netanya. In the audience is a man who he has invited, to bear witness, a retired judge, who the comedian, Dovaleh G, was at school with. This was the area where he grew up and there is another person who remembers him, a tiny woman, whom he was once kind to. Yet this is not a triumphant homecoming gig, but a matter of catharses. Over an hour and a half, or longer as the reader rather than an audience member, this one man show starts funny, but turns scabrous, sad, searing, until there are only a handful left in the audience to witness his pain. The novel is not quite a single monologue. The judge is our narrator and interjects as the going gets tough (and the going does get tough) and gives us something of a back story. For Dovaleh's own back story is one told sparingly, furstratingly through many discursions.

The audience are there for jokes and there are jokes here - old jokes, good ones, but in the old style. The man who offers a ticket to the game to a stranger. "Can't your wife go?" says the stranger, "no, she's dead." "What about her friends?" he asks, "They'd all rather be at her funeral." Humour is such a strange beast that its risky to erect a novel on top of a bed of such jokes. But they provide light relief. There's some mileage in the fictional comedian. "The Entertainer", "The King of Comedy" come to mind - though its older archetypes that Dovaleh reminds us off: his tale, a shaggy dog story of sorts, but one that is avoiding, circling round the thing he wants to tell - the terrible thing that was done to him nearly half a century before which led to him becoming a comedian, led to his broken marriages and distant relationships with his own children. That circling away from the tale is there in some of Shakespeare's more contemplative heroes, but finds its comedic home in that early English novel by Sterne, "Tristram Shandy". 

The retired judge didn't recognise Dovaleh when he first called and asked him to come. He didn't remember the incidents that Dovaleh prompted him to remember. But his own wife has died, and he has his own loneliness to feel regret so he turns up - but early in the performance he doesn't understand why he is there, why he has any responsibility to this man. He almost leaves, but of course, he stays to the end, as we do, as readers.

For Dovaleh is not a nice man, he is misanthropic certainly, possibly misogynistic as well. He is a clown but he has a dark side. At the same time his craft is such that he can pull the audience back from the brink. He talks directly to them in a way that probably makes other members of the audience not want to be picked on. Its an older crowd, and this is an old kind of humour. Its the endurance act of certain music hall comedians, surviving on a high wire act of their own making. As the night goes on the jokes drop away and he begins to tell his story - of when he was away at an army training camp for kids, and whilst away one of his parents died, and he has to go back to them - but in the all chaos - he is never told - or never listens - to hear which one has died. During the long journey, with a driver who is himself an amateur comedian, whiling away the ride whilst telling jokes, he has his own judgement of Solomon to make: which of his parents does he want to be alive, and which to find in the coffin.

In some ways the nature of this horror is spun out - there is no plot as such - but its using this cathartic night to look back on the worst moment in a person's life and from it try and construct what went wrong and how. Dovaleh the child was happy but somewhat insane - he walked on his hands, which stopped him being bullied (how could you a hit a kid walking on his hands?) until his dad found him doing it and banned him from it. His mother was a Holocaust survivor, his father loved her but loved work even more, and saw the two entwined - so making a business from nothing and work took the place of loving his son. We know some of this because the narrator tells us. A shy, lonely boy, he finds that talking to Dovaleh on their walks back from some tutoring classes, gave him his first friend, and also took him away from the rules and regulations of his home life and adult world. The world intrudes of course. How can it not in Israel throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties? But the darker jokes, about the Holocaust, about the Palestinians, bring out only sharp laughs from the audience who are naturally enough wanting a good time.

The novel has been highly acclaimed, and its no doubt that the original and the excellent translation are both a tour de force, but its also a difficult novel, hard to like, that asks a lot of its readers, just as Dovaleh asks alot of his audience. Firstly, we know early on that this is what we are going to get, and Dovaleh is not a pleasant man. He has a hectoring style, its full of hate, but also self-hate. He's a 57 year old man, but doesn't feel like someone who could have come of age during the disco and punk era, but an older archetype, like the miserable protagonist of Heller's "Good as Gold." We hear nothing about his wives and children, collateral damage it seems. And we are with him for the duration. The narrator can hardly bear it, and we wonder if we can as well. There's a point when those in the audience no longer want the jokes, they want to hear his story, however terrible it might be - I guess the reader settles in for the same thing. Yet, it seems a little alien to me - I can't place Dovaleh, I can't make sense of his upbringing, his world. There is no description, other than of the comedy club, so it feels an arid world that he describes, and its as if he and us are surrounded by ghosts. Most of the reviews I've read of the novel since finishing it reference a tragedy in Grossman's own life, as well as the troubles of the Israeli state - but without this biographical background (of the writer, not the character) - we only have what is here to go on, and though one eventually feels some sympathy for Dovaleh, it falls far short of empathy. We can see the man he has become - an ill man - prematurely aged - but also a successful one, making a career from his humour and his foibles. The payback to the reader - or at least this reader - didn't really come - in that I still felt unknowing about why we were here, with this character. It feels an old fashioned novel in some ways, despite the brave structure, and though one can appreciate its seriousness, I'm not sure I ever bought into its artfulness. Dovaleh seems to belong to a different time, a different world. Somehow, his story didn't resonate, and the somewhat pained execution, though masterfully done, meant this short book felt much longe than it was.

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