David Grossman has been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize (the precursor to the Man Booker International) more than once, most recently with To the End of the Land in 2011. A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated by Jessica Cohen), however, seems to be something of a departure: as its title suggests, its protagonist, Dovaleh Greenstein, is a stand-up comedian, and the novel consists of one night’s performance filtered through the narration of an old friend whom he has invited along to observe. “Why the long face?” is the barman’s response in the hackneyed joke of the title, and the novel could be said to answer that question, exploring the unhappiness at the centre of Dovaleh’s life.
Right from the start, Dovaleh seeks to antagonise as much as amuse his audience:
“Are you going to sit there and declare, so help you God, that I am actually in Netanya at this very minute, and I’m not even wearing a flak jacket?…I get creeped out by this Netanya dump. Every second person on the street looks like he’s on the witness protection programme, and every other person has the first person rolled up in a black plastic bag inside the trunk of his car.”
Hidden beneath the humour is a violence, simmering beneath the surface, and directed at himself as much as the audience. More than once he slaps himself on the forehead, “an awful blow, that slap.”
“I’ve seen that grimace before: a little rodent gnawing on himself.”
Though interspersed with jokes (often when reminded by the audience), his act is largely a retelling, a rediscovery, of an event from his childhood. As his monologue progresses, so the truth of what happened becomes clearer to him. Towards the end he says:
“I remember everything suddenly. That’s what’s amazing about this evening… You’ve done a great thing today for me by staying. I suddenly remember everything, and not in my sleep but like it’s happening right now, this minute.”
His humour is a defence from unpleasant truths – even as a child he would walk on his hands in an attempt to avoid being bullied. Grossman seems to be questioning whether humour, perhaps specifically Jewish humour, is therapeutic, or in fact a damaging refusal to face facts.
The novel is not easy (but then neither was the last novel I read with a comedian at the centre, Heinrich Boll’s The Clown, with which this shares both tone and message to some extent). Dovaleh’s stage persona is deliberately unpleasant: pugnacious and vitriolic, with a sense of something pathetic at its centre slowly being uncovered. The performance is a car crash, and while that holds a certain fascination, there are numerous squirm-inducing moments. The novel is a tightrope of heightened emotion, dipping into jokes with a feigned loss of balance: it can be exhausting to watch.
It’s a novel of crisis, a long dark night of the soul: Dovaleh asks his childhood friend, our narrator, Avishai Lazar, to observe him – “I want you to see me” – as if no longer able to see himself clearly. (That he is an ex-judge suggests, of course, that Dovaleh wants to be judged). And, like all of Grossman’s recent work, it’s a novel of loss.
Whether A Horse Walks into a Bar will make the short list is difficult to say. It possesses a formal daring and emotional intensity difficult to ignore, but it feels like a novel which will be more admired than loved.