“It’s a book about a comic, okay, but it’s far from a comic book” – A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

hwiab1Grossman won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize with this book: a novel that’s practically Aristotelian in its formal simplicity and its tragedy. A retired judge, Avishai Lazar, gets a phone call from a childhood acquaintance, a man from whom he’s not heard since they were fourteen years old, asking if he’ll come to the guy’s next performance. Dovaleh Greenstein is a stand-up comedian, and the gig in question takes place in the central Israeli town of Netanya. The book details the event: Lazar narrates the entire show in real time, diverting occasionally to recall the brief time the two boys had shared as youths, and to remember, sporadically and obliquely, his deceased wife, Tamara. Otherwise it’s all Dov’s monologue, punctured as it is only by heckles and objections from an increasingly unsettled audience as the comic’s routine shifts from the usual train of bad-taste jokes to an extended recollection – an oral history – of his childhood, his father’s violence, his mother’s experience in the Holocaust, his own victimisation by his peers, his retreat into physical comedy, and – in the novel’s slow, painful crescendo – his first funeral. And it’s not simply an atypical gig, but the comedian’s onstage disintegration: the collapse of (it seems) not only his career, but also of his entire persona as a fragile defensive construct against the horror of his youth.

So it’s a book about a comic, okay, but it’s far from a comic book: thanks to the main conceit, it’s got quite a lot of jokes, but really it’s a bleak, uncomfortable read, and if you can keep up with Lazar by following it in real-time, you might want to keep a stiff drink to hand with which to fortify yourself. It’s difficult to parse this all out in the abstract, but it’s impossible to explain more precisely how it without ruining the text’s central tension: like the bewildered audience in the comedy club, you’ve got to be confronted with the immediacy of Dov’s disintegration and, if you want full value for money, to grapple with it piece by piece, just as does Lazar. Suffice it to say, then, that Dovaleh’s performance becomes a confession, of sorts – an interrogation, not only of his childhood, and of his parents’ behaviour and pasts, but also of his own actions and thought-processes both as a child and as an adult who has matured in the shadow of the experience he’s narrating here to a puzzled, angry and upset audience.

It’s a claustrophobic book: even if you punctuate your reading with breaks, you’re always aware that Dov’s pushing himself through this self-exploration (manifesting as punishment, as catharsis, as condemnation and exoneration all at once) in a single, unrelenting outburst in front of a captive audience – it’s hard not to wince. And it’s not simply an unexpected story about a bad childhood and a troubled middle-aged man: it’s a story about the Holocaust. And that’s not limited to references to the Shoah, nor to the history of Israel, nor even to the few details that Dovaleh reveals about his mother’s scarred life, and neither is it limited to the horror of the choice he felt, as a child, he had to make (the figure of Mengele, signaling left and right, is ever-present): rather, the book is using the idea of testimony as a way of getting the reader to confront the Holocaust, to confront another’s trauma. Like Dovaleh G’s Netanya audience, Grossman’s readers are ‘hostages’ to his account: to hide or to flee from his story is to refuse to bear witness to his suffering; it’s to deny the experiences of the victims of the Shoah and those of their children. If Sarah Greenstein is traumatised by her early life, then her son is a witness to her suffering and thus a victim in his own right, and his audience repeats that role on a larger scale (a scale that’s expended again by Grossman’s readers, proxies for Lazar’s readers in what’s assumed to be his write-up of the ill-fated comedy show). What we get, then, is a look at the legacy of trauma (its intergenerational impact) and the importance of testimony as a way of processing that trauma; Dov’s outburst on stage is a reaction against the sublimation of pain that’s represented by his career as a comic, and that cathartic impulse is only made viable by the presence of Lazar as a witness to his pain. Grossman is asking, too, about the role of art (how does art – as comedy, as fiction – deal with suffering?) and of the audience (is there a morality implicit in the role?).

Any Cop?: It’s very far from an easy read – at best, it’s extremely unsettling – but an important one. Academic papers ahoy!

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

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