Something rare, important, true

This year’s Man Booker winning novel is hard to read but infinitely harder to put down

June 24, 2017 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Holocaust memories: A building from Warsaw ghetto with pictures of jews on the facade.

Holocaust memories: A building from Warsaw ghetto with pictures of jews on the facade.

Horace Walpole famously remarked that the world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think. But the protagonist of David Grossman’s tragic novel A Horse Walks into a Bar is a stand-up comic, for whom everything is fair game. When the novel opens, Dovaleh G, 57, is performing in a dark little basement club in the small town of Netanya in northern Israel.

He continues to do so through the nearly 200 pages of the novel. Much of it is ribaldry; no political jokes, he assures the proprietor of the club, though he nevertheless manages to slip in some sly political references. As the evening progresses, the act turns darker, with flashes of savage humour; but at the heart of this particular night’s bitterly ironical performance is a glimpse of the man’s tortured soul.

In the audience, it turns out, are two people who had known Dovaleh when he was a boy. One, the narrator, is Avishai, a judge who had to take early retirement because his judgements were increasingly filled with rage, and who is now grieving the death of his wife and the imminent loss of his ageing dog. As boys, albeit from different social backgrounds, they had attended maths lessons with the same tutor and had struck up an unlikely friendship.

Yet, decades later, Avishai has erased it entirely from his memory. Until, one day, Dovaleh rings him up and asks him to attend his performance at Netanya:

“‘I want you to see me, really see, and then afterwards tell me.’

‘Tell you what?’

‘What you saw.’”

I looked up Netanya on the Internet: an interesting factoid is that the town, created in the late 1920s and

A Horse Walks into a Bar David Grossman Penguin Random House ₹ 699

A Horse Walks into a Bar David Grossman Penguin Random House ₹ 699

now a beach resort, was named after Nathan Straus, the owner of Macy’s in New York City and a prominent Jewish philanthropist.

The other person in the audience who knows Dovaleh is Azulai, a tiny woman, a midget with a speech impediment who is now a medium. She knew him in the neighbourhood where they had lived; the boy had been kind to her when she was picked on. “You were a good boy,” she says. That he is taken aback by these words gives us a hint of the barren emotional landscape of his childhood.

A boy at camp

At the age of 14, the boys are sent to a military camp for high school students. It is the first time Dovaleh will be away from home. Inexplicably, he starts to cry. “I didn’t want to go to that camp at all, just so you know… something about the whole thing just didn’t sit well, like I had some kind of sixth sense, or maybe I was afraid, I don’t know, to leave them alone with each other.”

“Them” refers to his parents. Dovaleh’s mother is a Holocaust survivor from Europe, a woman haunted by her memories, and with stitches on both her wrists; his father is a barber who worships his wife and beats his son. Bit by bit we get details of the mother’s trauma: walking barefoot through snow; six months in a Polish railway coach; Dr Mengele. These are only bits of the darkness: her experience is ultimately unknowable. And Dovaleh wonders about the profound silence within his parents’ life: “Maybe it was because of her Holocaust and the fact that he wasn’t in it, not even as an extra?”

Predictably, the boy is picked on by everyone at the camp. It is the narrator who tells us this, as his memories come flooding back. At this point there are two voices, intertwined: the voice of Dovaleh, bitter and ironic; and the voice of the narrator, filled with regret and shame at betraying his friend.

Flip a coin

Meanwhile, inside this performance by the stand-up comic is another performance of jokes, told by the driver who brings the boy back from the camp. In his confused way, the driver is trying to comfort him in view of the horror that awaits.

The narrator wonders about the whole experience of witnessing the show: “How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into its hostages?”

For the performer literally beats himself up during the performance, slapping his forehead and even breaking his glasses, but the audience—the part that chooses to remain—is transfixed, knowing that they are witnessing something rare and important and true. “The room is very quiet again, the air suddenly feels dense. The thought that he might never get up passes, I think, through everyone’s mind. As though each of us feels that somewhere out there, in some distant and capricious courtroom, a coin has been flipped that could come down either way.”

Sickly red

Through the black humour and the pain, the novel is a wise, compassionate, and profoundly moving work of redemption. Dovaleh tells the narrator, “‘When you do stand-up you sometimes make people laugh, and that’s no small thing.’ He said the last few words softly, as if to himself, and I thought: he’s right, that is no small thing.”

There are some novels that are hard to read but infinitely harder to put down. A Horse Walks into a Bar , winner of this year’s Man Booker International award, is one such work.

It is a masterpiece of storytelling from David Grossman, a powerful successor to the haunting To the End of the Land (2008). Jessica Cohen’s translation from the Hebrew is fluid and powerful, even in the wild savagery of the jokes, such as this unforgettable moment:

“‘ Hands together for death! ’ he screams, sweaty and breathless, his cheeks burning a sickly red. ‘ Raise the roof! ’ he screeches, and the young people, especially the soldiers, clap their hands over their heads and roar with him, and he goads them on with mocking grins.”

The writer is in the IAS, currently based in Bengaluru.

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