My rating *****
A stand-up comedian, Dovaleh G invites a retired judge to watch his show. Afterwards he wants to know what you saw…What do people know when they look at me…the thing that comes out of a person without his control. But it’s hardly an evening of comedy: even when he laughs, his look is calculating and joyless; the jokes are tasteless and cruel, and the slapstick is violent. No one is exempt – those with disabilities and even victims of the Holocaust: she had a lot of experience with camping…although her camps were more of the concentration variety.
Soon, as the jokes are dropped and the show becomes more autobiography than stand-up, members of the audience start to walk out. But, like the judge, we can’t turn away or avert our gaze. We want to know why – what has happened to the funny kid with glasses and prominent lips that the judge once knew as a child forty years previously, to turn him into this monster? As Dovaleh’s show spirals down, and the judge experiences increasingly gloomy and often angry memories, we gradually piece together a version of the story. The final scenes are stretched out to an almost unbearable breaking point as we witness the trauma that has marked Dovaleh for life and is constantly in his dreams. Such dirt on me, such pollution… God, all the way to my bones…We watch like voyeurs, but we still can’t look away. We’re gripped until the end.
This profoundly moving novel holds up the conflict inherent in using human suffering for art, the relationship between the performer and the audience, our complicity and the uncomfortable space where these all meet. We witness both the inner glow. Or the inner darkness. The secret, the tremble of singularity of ordinary personal loss (the judge) and the loss that never stops and colours a whole life (Dovaleh). We see how we tell the story of our own lives to ourselves and what we choose to forget.
The overarching question raised by this deeply sad but often very wild and funny novel, is the question of anti-Semitism, the ‘Jewish’ question, whose echoes continue to reverberate down the generations since the Holocaust.
A Horse Walks into a Bar is not an easy read – it is harrowing, poignant and powerful. But it is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and now a worthy winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2017, shared between the author, David Grossman and his English translator, Jessica Cohen.