David Grossman (b. 1954) is one of Israel’s most highly regarded writers. His most recent novel, “A Horse Walks into a Bar” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), won Great Britain’s prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2017. The book, which was published in Hebrew as “Sus Echad Nichnas L’Bar” in 2014, was translated by Jessica Cohen.
The narrative unfolds during the course of a few hours on an August night in a basement dive in a gritty industrial section of Netanya, a medium-size coastal city between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Dov Greenstein, an over-the-hill stand-up comic, who has turned 57 that very day, slowly unravels both psychologically and physically during his performance. What begins as a more or less normal, though caustic, routine, in which Dov badgers and insults his audience to comic effect, disintegrates into a semi-coherent confession of unresolved family conflict and painful recollections of emotional and physical abuse.
Dov’s act is increasingly one of demonstrable self-loathing. He has been a failure in his three marriages, and his five children loathe him. He tells his audience, “Even the animals around the neighborhood made fun of me.”
As the performance drags on, the audience – that is to say, we readers – becomes ever more repulsed by Dov’s story and at the same time ever more seduced by “the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”
One by one, the men and women in the audience, fed up with Dov using them “to work out his hang-ups,” begin to walk out, abandoning him on his shabby stage. “A man’s voice grunts through the silence: ‘Listen, buddy, bottom line – are we going to get any comedy here tonight or not?’”
Only two people remain until the bitter end: Avishai Lazar, a retired district judge, and Eurycleia, a midget who sometimes serves as a medium. Both of them knew Dov when he was growing up. Their very presence at his performance forces him to resurrect deepening levels of pain.
Eurycleia remembers Dov as “the boy who walked on his hands …. You were a good boy!” Disturbed that Dov’s routine seems to her “not funny” and “mean,” she challenges him with “Why are you like this?” – a question that brings out in Dov “[t]iny islets of compassion and decency.”
By the end of the evening, Dov’s performance forces Avishai to confront his long-repressed memories of witnessing Dov being cruelly bullied at the Gadna training camp but being afraid to come to his friend’s defense.
As Avishai gets ready to go home, he finds himself wrestling with his long-ago cowardice and failure of nerve.
While Grossman’s novel is universal in its probings of human frailty, the author draws upon the particulars of the Israeli experience to intensify his reader’s sense of place. Thus, Dov’s monologue is saturated with Holocaust references. Words evoking the catastrophe, like indigestible nails, keep appearing in his stand-up routine: Goebels, Eichman, umshlagplatz (collection area where Nazis sent Jews off to the death camps), selekzia (the process by which Nazis selected who would live and who would die).
Every Israeli witnessing Dov’s very public self-excoriation has heard air raid sirens at precisely 10 a.m. every April or May on Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and stopped what he or she was doing, then stood silently at attention for two minutes in respectful memory of the Six Million.
Barely into his monologue, Dov informs his audience that his mother survived the Holocaust by hiding for six months in a tiny railroad car. He goes on to make them – and the readers – exceedingly uncomfortable by crossing the line of decency and attempting to joke about the Shoah, wondering out loud why his dad showed so little public affection for his mom:
“Maybe it was because of her Holocaust, and the fact that he wasn’t in it, not even as an extra? I mean the guy not only didn’t get murdered, he wasn’t even injured in the Holocaust.”
In putting these words in the mouth of his main character, Grossman dares to question the role of the Holocaust in the Israeli psyche.
Employing the literary device of Dov recalling his tortured and traumatic few days at Be’er Ora, the Gadna training camp that gives Israeli youth a foretaste of army life, Grossman also dares to question another of his nation’s sacred cows: the military.
While the army is often deemed to be the great equalizer in Israel’s democracy, Dov recounts his experience as a 14-year-old at Gadna as hell on earth, a place where his peers bullied him without mercy while the adult army officers looked the other way.
“A Horse Walks into a Bar” is not the kind of title that one would expect from a novelist as distinguished and sophisticated as David Grossman. Nevertheless, early on, the author hints at the significance of the title through Dov’s actions and words: “He lifts up his faded T-shirt, and a gasp passes through the room .…‘See this? Skin and bones. Mostly cartilage. I swear to God, if I were a horse, I’d be glue by now.’” Dov is the horse who walks into a bar.
Later on, Grossman makes direct reference to his title: “A horse walks into a bar and asks the barman for a Goldstar ….” This time, an Israeli soldier is telling the joke to a 14-year-old Dov, who is being driven from his cut-short Gadna training at Be’er Ora to his mother’s funeral in Jerusalem.
In his increasingly rambling and disjointed monologue – without ever getting to the punch line – Dov tells those who have not yet left that “this driver guy is prattling with his thousand and one nights, and all I want to do is get away from him.”
The magic of Grossman’s storytelling is that he has created a profoundly flawed character, Dov Greenstein, who, even while driving almost everybody in his audience away with his interminable “prattling,” manages with both pathos and wisdom to pierce the heart of darkness, to uncover myriad meanings of human suffering and vulnerability.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.