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A Horse Walks into a Bar

A Horse Walks into a Bar

The Israeli novelist David Grossman and his American translator Jessica Cohen have just been awarded the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. Grossman’s winning book, A Horse Walks into a Bar, published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, may be a novel about a comedian but it is not a comic novel. Like all of Grossman's work – and this is his eleventh novel – it is a work of great moral seriousness. The human condition, for Grossman, is something to be wondered at and explored but rarely something to be laughed at. He is entitled to smile now though, having seen off 125 other works of translated fiction to pick up the £50,000 prize which is, as the rules stipulate, shared half and half with Cohen as recognition of the vital role played by the translator.

David Grossman is no stranger to awards, and not just Israeli ones, having won, among others, the JQ Wingate Prize twice, the 2010 Frankfurt Peace Prize, Italy's Premio Flaiano and been awarded the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His fiction has been translated into 36 languages but he is also a poet, a children's writer, an opera librettist, and a former child actor and radio host.

A Horse Walks into a Bar describes an evening from hell when rather than hearing a stream of jokes the audience in a small-town comedy club is confronted by a man breaking down on stage in front of their repelled but fascinated eyes. On his 57th birthday Dovaleh Greenstein, ‘Dovaleh G’, the bespectacled, red braces and cowboy-boot wearing funny-man, starts off OK but then turns first on his audience – ‘Why are you idiots laughing? That joke was about you!’ – and then on himself.

It soon becomes clear, amidst the heckling and booing, that something serious is going on. Witnessing the deteriorating scene and sharing the mounting sense of unease in the room is a retired district court justice, Avishai Lazar, a childhood friend who has been invited by Dovaleh, though he doesn't know why. What Lazar sees is ‘a little rodent gnawing on himself’ and the source of his self-lacerating it emerges is a choice between two people he had to make many years before, events in which Lazar too is implicated.

Dovaleh is by turns hectoring, loathsome, strident – ‘I’m a bottom-feeder, am I not?’ But he is also damaged beyond repair and by the end of the book, the reader as well as the audience feels the need to protect him. ‘How did he do that?’ wonders Lazar. ‘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 his hostages?’ What Dovaleh reveals under the spotlight is not just his soul but something too of dysfunctional societies and the state of Israel itself. Dov, for all his offensive stories-turned-rants, makes, indeed forces, his audience as well as himself face up to truths they would rather avoid.

Translating from the Hebrew Grossman's complex mix of quickfire jokes (‘Doll-face. Yes, you, the one who put her make-up on in the dark!’ he shouts at one audience member, ‘I note a magnificent dose of Botox, not to mention an out-of-control breast reduction’, he yells at another) and raw emotion is quite a feat. This is why Jessica Cohen – born in England, raised in Israel, and living in Denver – deserves her place in the limelight alongside the author. She is used to Grossman, having translated To the End of the Land, his epic novel about the Israel-Palestine imbroglio, but that novel had a stateliness that Grossman jettisoned for A Horse Walks into a Bar.

One of the themes of the novel is the role played by art – humour in Dovaleh's case – and in thinking of art's power to shapeshift, dissemble, create, reveal and unsettle it is impossible not to think of the writer and translator too.