A Horse Walks Into A Bar – David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Unfortunately, I am going to have to plead ignorance of metaphor or political reference for this book. Although I am not, by any means, an expert on Israel histories, or the seaside city of Netanya, I did spend a little time researching the recent histories to see if there was a parallel to David Grossman’s book, all to no avail. I’m sure others will be able to point out my ignorance and feel free to add to the comments below if you have a revelation I simply missed.

Therefore, I am presenting my view on this novel based purely on the narrative presented.

The novel takes place over the course of a single evening, in a nightclub in Netanya, Israel. Dovale Gee is a 57-year-old depressed stand-up comedy performer who is giving a “show”, our narrator, is a childhood acquaintance who has been asked to attend, observe the show and report back on what he sees.

A novel that uses manipulative dialogue, mixing (poor) stand-up humour with a reflective manipulative dialogue, it is a journey into the mind of two middle-aged men:

How did he do that? I wonder. 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? (pp57)

After fifty-nine pages of setting up the awkward situation, our comic declares that he’s going to give us his life story. This divides the audience, a number wanting to hear, witness, his unravelling, a number turning on him, they’ve paid for a comedy show, not a personal outpouring.

As Dovale Gee opens his souls on stage, learning more about himself in the process, the other, our narrator, a retired judge, is also learning more about himself;

So how do I make sense of this? How do I explain the fact that I – with my twenty-five years of experience observing and listening, being attentive to every clue – was so blind to his condition, so self-absorbed? How did his frenetic chatter and nervous jokes affect me the way strobe lights affect an epileptic? How did I keep turning inwards, to my own life?

And how could it be that he, in his state, ultimately gave me what all the books I read and the movies I watched and the consolations offered by friends and relatives these past three years did not do for me? (pp71)

Reading this novel is akin to being a member of the audience, slowly watching Dovale unravel is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

There’s been a rustle in the audience for a few moments. It’s hard to tell exactly where it’s coming from. Almost everyone I look at seems fascinated by the story and by the storyteller – fascinated despite themselves, perhaps, sometimes with an expression of aversion, even terror. Yet there is a hum, as if from a distant hive, that has been rising from the crowd for a few minutes. (pp143)

On face value this novel is an exploration of two men, who have chosen different paths, both hitting middle-age and reflecting upon their lack of achievements, their shallow lives, a time of regret. Without spoilers, it is difficult to reveal too much about these lives that diverge and then meet again.

There is another childhood “friend” in the audience, adding a little reality and prompting further reflection on behalf of the comic, leading me to believe that there is an underlying metaphorical meaning to this work. Whether it is about a nation that is motherless/fatherless, a nation that distracts itself from the realities of the everyday by using humour, or simply an inability to connect, not having enough understanding of the intricacies of Israeli history means the story felt a little empty for me.

A book that is worth persisting with, simply to see the degeneration of the main character, it is not a work I would have chosen to add to my bulging bookshelves.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I don’t think so, whilst readable and not overly difficult, personally it lacked a “click” that made me stand up and take notice, I think it will be one of the longlist to drop by the wayside come 20 April when the shortlist is announced.

12 thoughts on “A Horse Walks Into A Bar – David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

  1. Pingback: Man Booker International Prize 2017 Longlist | Messenger's Booker (and more)

      • Good point….. though sometimes when I read books from other countries/cultures I end up feeling inadequate that I dont know more about them.


      • Gosh yes, that happens all the time, and it can feel very risky writing a review because some expert might be lurking in the wings, waiting to pounce on some inadvertent howler. And then you can get the patronising or incredulous, ‘So you haven’t been to #InsertCityName?!’ as if shelling out thousands of Aussie dollars and flying for 20 hours to get anywhere is as easy as crossing the Channel…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wheras of course they have been there, done it all, had x number of amazing adventures which they will describe at every opportunity. But they’ll have learned nothing… Me cynical? Surely not?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: 2017 Man Booker International Prize Longlist- Combined Shadow Jury reviews | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  3. I admired Grossman’s bravery in structuring the entire novel around a stand-up routine, but, like you, wasn’t entirely sure if it was a character piece or had wider political connotations.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: 2017 Man Booker International Prize Shortlist | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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