A Horse Walks into a Bar
By David Grossman
Translated by Jessica Cohen
Alfred A. Knopf
A Horse Walks into a Bar by Israeli author David Grossman is about a stand-up comic delivering a routine that starts with glib insults but transforms into a personal confession of loss, bitterness and guilt.
And while this ‘routine’ is the one we experience from beginning to end, the book is also about personal responsibility, how we judge people and do or do not reach out to them, how we deal with our own demons, memories, and shame, and the heart of much that is self-reproach in life and literature.
Grossman brings out much that is laughable and absurd through the comic’s routine but as it continues, the audience, the narrator, and we with them, sense that this comic will not only skirt disaster and bitterness but might actually plunge in. Unlike a writer like Shalom Aleichem, who in most stories wants to leave us laughing, Grossman will force us to see the whole catastrophe.
That constant sense of approaching danger holds the narrator, who has a personal connection to the comic, which is only revealed gradually.
From the start there are hints of Kafka’s story about a talking ape’s presentation/confession to an academy. The comic comes in. adopts a pose, “crouching like a monkey,” and opens with “Oh wait, this isn’t Caesarea.” The Netanya audience laughs and we are off on our journey with him and the narrator, each into his own personal hell/purgatory.
We are plunged into the middle of an unknown place; uncertain of what is to come, kept off balance by the comic’s alternation between caustic attacks on members of the audience, standard jokes, and self-flagellation. We are experiencing a kind of “divine comedy”, an entertainment that reveals not only the pain of the comic, which he may evoke in the reader, but also the emotions of horror, shame, regret and guilt that leave us with the same conundrum of how to go on.
Grossman deftly uses the audience but, in particular, the narrator of the book, to reveal how we may all be connected to this story. The narrator is a retired judge who has been persuaded to come and watch the show by the comic because they knew each other as preteens at a time when each was feeling alienated and alone. Through the routine, and the narrator’s own comments about the past, the judge realizes that he is there not only to judge the comic, but his own culpability in betraying his friend, and even his tendency to be judgmental and aloof. There are hints in the comic’s jokes, of a judgment even broader on Israeli society and how it deals with people’s differences, their sense of aloneness.
The heart of the comic’s personal guilt is that when he was called from his pre-army camp in the Negev because one of his Holocaust survivor parents died, he did not know which one until he got to the funeral. On the journey north, he thought about which one it was. In his mind, his decision about who he would meet was going to determine who was actually dead. The whole emotional roller coaster of trying to decide who he hoped he would see even alienated him from himself. No one at the camp reached out to him, not even his friend.
In this routine, the comic was seeking a kind of absolution through being judged. But the judge discovers he, too, is seeking the same absolution. We are left with the sense that only through self and mutual forgiveness can our guilt, shame, and pain be assuaged.
A Horse Walks into a Bar provides a very human message in a time and place where we have much to forgive each other for.
A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman was the winner of the Mann Booker International Prize for in 2017.