David Grossman’s books are not renowned for their humour. An unnerving sense of the absurd, a quiet melancholy, and an unusual depth of human feeling are all hallmarks of his fictional works, particularly in the book English readers are most familiar with: the magisterial ‘To the End of the Land’. That novel was a sombre, almost desolate tale of a mother who walks from Jerusalem to the Galilee to avoid the army ‘notifiers’ sent to inform her of the death of her son. The work further acquired an almost mythical status when it was revealed that Grossman’s son had been killed on the final day of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon war, as the book was nearing completion. ‘To the End of the Land’ was, amongst many other things, a hymn to that grand biblical landscape between the river and the sea, a reflection on grief, love and barbarism. Though it was an unflinching look at the tragedies and anxieties of his country, it certainly was not funny, outrageous or provocative (in anything other than the sense that all worthwhile writing must be).
His new novel, however, the Man Booker International Prize-winning ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’, is all of those things. The entirety of the action takes place over two hours in the acrid, airless basement of a Netanya night club, where an obnoxious stand-up takes the stage, cracking jokes about incest, Dr Mengele and the occupation, leading anti-Arab chants whilst steadily descending into a deep pit of bitterness, despair and confessional self-flagellation. But the further one reads into this compact, incisive book, lucidly translated by Grossman’s long term collaborator Jessica Cohen, the more one notices the profound continuities between the two works: the need to escape or distract from the world, the struggle for hope, and a profoundly tragic sense of life.
The book begins with an assembled crowd of workers, housewives, soldiers on leave, bikers and gruff Likuniks as they chatter and order drinks in anticipation of an evening of distraction and relaxation. The crowd take their seats, the lights go down, and a skeletal figure strolls onto the stage in baggy jeans and platform cowboy boots. The man filling out this pathetic figure is our protagonist, Dovaleh Greenstein, a veteran comic by turns endearing, infuriating, charming, and repulsive, who in the course of the evening treats the crowd to a quiet unforgettable show. He begins his routine with a barrage of one-liners, dirty jokes, and scathing exchanges with hecklers: “Well good evening, Mister Tony Soprano decked out in lemon meringue. Welcome to our humble abode, and may you have a very crystal nacht. I understand you’re in between medications at the moment, and just my luck, you had to choose this particular evening to get out for some fresh air!”
For the next two hours, he holds the audience captive (or rather holds them hostage) as he engages in a frustrating and confusing performance of confession and self-laceration, exposing his very deepest wounds and pleading with his audience for support even as he repels them with spiteful and cruel attacks. Evidently an experienced—perhaps even talented—stand-up, Dovaleh strings along his audience with the carefully chosen and well-timed gags that he needs to ensure their continued attention, an attention that he desperately seeks at the same as it repulses him, and the audience is drawn to his ruthless self-examination and condemnation as if to the scene of a terrible car accident. He loathes the audience, and the feeling is mutual, but a strangely powerful bond develops between them. This exploration of the fraught dynamic between audience and artist—that “murky sense of partnership that prickles deep in our guts and stirs up a sticky, messy pleasure both sickening and alluring”—is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book.
Observations of the comedian and his audience are jotted down on bar napkins by the story’s narrator Avishai Lazar, a recently retired judge and old school friend of Dovaleh. Lazar struggles for most of the evening to comprehend the reasons he was summoned unexpectedly to this bizarre display, trying to understand this man, this “little rodent gnawing on himself” who was once the sweet, shy little boy he would talk to after school, and who used to walk all day on his hands to avoid and bemuse the neighbourhood bullies.
As the night wears on and the jokes begin to wear thin, Dovaleh begins to delve into the real subject of his confessional tale. He recounts a childhood spent in a tiny Jerusalem apartment with his violent, insecure father and beautiful but distant mother, a Holocaust survivor with “all kinds of baggage from there”. On a school trip to the desert, where he is beaten by his classmates and ignored by his only friend, Dovaleh is summoned away by the camp commander and packed on a jeep to Jerusalem to attend the funeral of one of his parents; although which parent’s funeral he will be attending, the commander has neglected to tell him. On the tortuous journey to the funeral, whilst a feckless cadet tries to distract him with torrents of jokes, Dovaleh summons up memories of his mother and father, imagining his life going on with only one of them and weighing them up in his mind in the belief that his decision will determine which parent will be buried.
Dovaleh’s miserable origins, anxiety about the future and uneasy relationship with the past run parallel with the worries of his country. Both Dovaleh and Grossman were born into a divided Jerusalem, less the eternal city of the Wall, the Dome, and the Sepulchre than a dusty warren of corrugated iron roofs, and alleyways strewn with barbed wire. Grossman evokes this lost Israel with a measured pathos and a remarkable eye for the significant details. In Grossman’s hands, descriptions of tent fabric, the tenor of schoolground insults, and convoluted hustles of Jerusalem street hawkers all evoke something of the hope, fear and sadness of that period whilst never wallowing in a facile nostalgia for the sepia-tinted half-memories of Hebrew folk songs and kibbutzim.
Grossman does not engage directly with Yesh Matsav (‘the [political] situation’) in this book, and neither does he have any obligation to. What interests him is the way people try to remove themselves from the realities of the world; through humour, anger, denial and distraction. Just as a young Dovaleh would walk on his hands to escape a childhood of abuse and disappointment, Dovaleh’s audience are searching for an escape, a distraction, not just from politics but from the disappointments and heartbreaks of even the most average life. It is perhaps no surprise then, that Dovaleh’s reality is unbearable for much of his audience: “people come here to have a good time, it’s the weekend, you wanna clear your head and this guy gives us Yom Kippur”.
But in addition to showing us how humour serves as a means of distraction, Grossman understands well the central insight of Jewish humour: that jokes are not always funny, that often the appropriate response to a joke is not laughter but a sigh, a shrug or a commiserating nod. And here we see that there is in fact no tension, no opposition between humour and tragedy. Consider the well-known Ashkenazi joke:
A rumour was spreading through a small village that a Christian girl had been found murdered. Terrified, the Jews gathered together to debate whether to defend or abandon their homes, but just as they began to speak, the tavern-keeper burst in with a jubilant look on his face: “Brothers,” he cried out, “I have wonderful news! The murdered girl is Jewish!”
To laugh here would be to not understand the joke. The role of the humourist, the joker or the jester is not fulfilled by merely distracting his audience or making them laugh. Just like the fool in King Lear, Dovaleh uses his position to tell disconcerting and uncomfortable truths to his unwilling audience: “[T]ake it from me, the best way to be appreciated somewhere is not to be there, you get me? Wasn’t that the idea behind God’s whole Holocaust initiative?”.
Dovaleh does for his audience exactly what he does for himself. He uses his comedy to force an encounter with the painful memories and realities which we feel we cannot stomach. Distraction is essential – nobody can stare too long into the abyss – but as Avishai notes on another bar napkin, “an aversion to remembering one enormous painful memory can slowly dull and blot out huge parts of the past”. One feels by the end of Dovaleh’s excruciating soliloquy that one has faced the trauma of a man and a nation, and it is a testament to Grossman’s art that this is done with humour and an overwhelming human warmth.
Jonathan Egid  is studying for a BPhil in Philosophy at Wadham College.