Should You Be Laughing at This?: David Grossman's A Horse Walks Into a Bar


A small Israeli town called Netanya. A comedy club. A stand up comedian ("a treacherous jester," if you like) by the name of Dovaleh Greenstein. An audience expecting an evening of amusement, unaware of what they have signed up for. This is what David Grossman's Man Booker International winner, A Horse Walks Into a Bar (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen) is briefly about.

The novel is narrated by Dovaleh's estranged childhood friend and retired District Court judge, Avishai Lazar, who gives the readers an account of Dovaleh's stand up routine as it unfolds on stage, recounts instances from Dovaleh and his shared childhood in Israel, and attempts to discern the reasons why he has been summoned to this performance.

During his performance, Dovaleh oscillates between good and bad jokes, disgustingly sexist comments, political satire, and tragic personal anecdotes. All in all, Dovaleh is not a particularly likeable character and perhaps he is not meant to be. What he is meant to do is to shake the audience and the readers from their comfortably complacent nests in order to make them see and understand what makes the worst of us, the worst.

The myth of birth, busted

Quite early on in his performance, Dovaleh announces that it is his fifty-seventh birthday and tells the audience that they are witnessing the first man in history to have suffered from postpartum depression five times including the bout of depression after his own birth. The theme of birth—and its flip-side, death—is a recurrent one in Dovaleh's performance. This theme, it must be noted, is also significant to Biblical narratives around the world.

Dovaleh is born in Jerusalem, which, in the Hebrew Bible, was conquered by King David and established as the capital of Israel. The Book of Exodus narrates the story of how the Israelites freed themselves from slavery in Egypt, led by Moses, through the strength of Yahweh, the God who chose Israel as the 'promised land.' This story is the founding myth of Israel. The 'promised land' is a central tenant in Zionism which suggests that modern Jews are descendants of Israelites and asserts that they must re-establish their rightful homeland. Jerusalem is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital and is a core issue in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The theme of birth in the novel is, therefore, also to be understood in terms of the birth of Israel as a nation, which, as one is aware, is a tale of violent occupation, colonization, and bloody deaths. Dovaleh and many others like him, born amidst one of the world's most intractable disputes, are bound to bear its effects. Dovaleh tells the audience that he flipped the calendar back exactly nine months, fifty-seven years ago, to find that he was born on the day of the Sinai Campaign. The campaign was part of the Suez Crisis of 1956 whereby Egypt was invaded by Israel, Britain, and France to regain Western control over the Suez Canal and to remove Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power. 

Dovaleh says that this is an example of one of the many bloody operations ("Operation Whatever-the-fuck-else") of the Israeli state, the consequences of which are borne by the people of the country. The theme of birth, in this manner, is associated with violence and death; the myth of birth is busted and overturned to mirror reality, to reflect a country and people caught in a cycle of terrible conflict. Dovaleh says, 

It's not easy getting to fifty-seven, and that's after surviving, as we just heard, the Holocaust and the Bible!

A peculiar contract

It is this mirror that Dovaleh must show to his audience and readers; a mirror in which they must find their own dark selves reflected. From the very beginning, the narrator informs us, there seems to be a 'peculiar' contract taking form between the performer and his audience. He says,

But the whole singalong is not as it seems. . . The performer is mocking his audience, playing with them, and yet a moment later it seems that it's the audience that is slyly pulling him into his own trap, and the interplay makes them both partners in some sort of evasive, fluid transgression. . .

The contract is also between Dovaleh and the narrator. Dovaleh calls the narrator, after many years of absent contact, to invite him to his performance. What he wants the narrator to do is to see him, really see him, and tell him what people know when they look at him, at the thing that comes out of him, defined by the narrator as the radiance of personality, an inner glow or inner darkness, and the "secret, the tremble of singularity."

Dovaleh attempts to coax the narrator and his audience out of their political and moral dyslexia  so they may really see him, see what is really happening around them beyond the institutional and ideological distortions. Interestingly, Dovaleh says that he is terminally dyslexic and this shortcoming was discovered when he was still a foetus by doctors who suggested an abortion. In this, Dovaleh, once again, brings in the images of birth and death along with the idea that successive generations are being fed the same distorted version of reality. The narrator says (and perhaps the predicament is shared by the audience/readers),

I had a sense that there was a second, muted conversation going on between me and this man. . .

Despite its political overtones, the story is very personal (then again, is the personal not political and the political not personal?). Fifty-sever-year-old Dovaleh is narrating his life-story. At the same time, the narrator is recounting the story of Dovaleh and his shared childhood. But this is not a simple life-story, not a childhood of sunshine and rainbows (then again, is there such a life-story, such a childhood?). It is a childhood of being beaten and bullied, of being forced to attend a mandatory military camp and undergo military training ("Are we in Sparta or are we in Israel?" Dovaleh asks), of being thrust into situations that, as a child, you do not have the abilities to comprehend, of being made to grow-up much before appropriate time. The narrator remarks,

For an instant, when he looks up, the spotlight creates an optical illusion and a fifty-seven-year-old boy is reflected out of a fourteen-year-old man.

Should you be laughing at this?

All of this is framed into a stand up comedy act, packed within a short novel of about two hundred pages. With its contexts and its content, the novel raises the insisting question, "Should you be laughing at this?" Dovaleh is a jester, a clown. He fits into the traditional role assigned to the jester (as in Shakespeare, who is referred in the novel), that of a critic of the state, a social and political commentator. Dovaleh has clearly been told by his boss, Yoavi, not to include politics in his act but he cannot help himself. He says,

. . . but it just slipped out, that's it, no politics, no occupation, no Palestinians, no world, no reality, no two settlers walking down Hebron Casbah.

This is right before he makes jokes about two settlers murdering an Arab man and about a world without 'lefties', ironically asking his boss,

Making fun of lefties isn't politics, right, Yoavi? It's just a statement of facts, yeah?

Dovaleh is also a reader of Kafka, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. Like these writers, Dovaleh, as the narrator observes, seems to enjoy fanning the flames, "stimulating some kind of vulgar, corrupt gland," aiming at a

. . .  murky sense of partnership [between himself and the narrator/audience/reader] that prickles deep in our guts and stirs up a sticky, messy pleasure both sickening and alluring.

What is particularly interesting is that, unlike Kafka (or perhaps using Kafka), Dovaleh (and Grossman through Dovaleh) is able to turn the gaze back at those institutions and networks of power that control individuals and assist in maintaining a disintegrated existence while promoting a distorted version of reality. The narrator, a retired judge by profession, is a part of these very networks. From the beginning, he feels a sense of guilt (an important structural and thematic trope in Kafka's The Trial). He believes that Dovaleh is singling him out and can target him at any moment, though he remains unaware of what exactly he has done to warrant such a treatment and an invitation to this performance.

To conclude, Grossman's A Horse Walks Into a Bar is not the easiest novel to read. There are no chapter breaks, with certain spaces between paragraphs giving you very little time to breath and process information. There are references to particular events and persons that definitely require some research and that disrupts the flow and pace of the narrative. However, the novel significantly reintroduces, to the world, the Israel-Palestine conflict which has been ongoing since the mid-twentieth century and has cost many lives. The novel makes a case against erasure (the narrator who had erased Dovaleh must make an effort to recount all that had happened to him) and in favour of remembering and thinking. To end with the words of Arundhati Roy,

What we have on our hands is a species problem. None of us is exempt.

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A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman, published by Jonathan Cape, 2016.

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