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Review: A Horse Walks Into A Bar

Standing up and falling down

    David Grossman: his extraordinary protagonist's 'excruciating honesty' throws down a challenge to the reader
    David Grossman: his extraordinary protagonist's 'excruciating honesty' throws down a challenge to the reader

    By David Grossman
    Jonathan Cape, £14.99

    Israeli novelist David Grossman won the Wingate Prize in 2011 for his epic To the End of the Land. His next book, Falling out of Time, seemed to some like a veiled therapy, recalling the death of his son in a rocket attack after a ceasefire in the 2006 Lebanon war. To others, it was a tour de force, part poem, part play, part collective excursion into the meaning of death, the locations of grief and presence of loved ones in the hereafter of the imagination. Grossman's new novel is a sharply different yet equally bravura performance. And performance is its modus operandi.

    He presents in continuous narrative the monologue of a stand-up comedian on a hot summer night in Netanya. There are jokes, but the process here may be therapy as well as entertainment.

    Some in the audience grow irritated and leave. An invited witness, a retired judge who knew the comedian in military camp as a teen, twitches to join them but finds he can't budge. Duty, fascination and retreat into his own troubled ruminations restrain him.

    The comedian's "act" is his life story; the judge's recollections embellish it. We see an embarrassed son, a bullied boy, an incompetent recruit. A mother half-crazed from war experiences in Poland has evoked from her child an urge to make people laugh. He walks on his hands to disarm his schoolmates and learns the consoling power of jokes from the army driver who eventually speeds him to a climactic funeral. We come to understand that his playfulness is self-defensive, his self-laceration purposeful revelation. Like the judge, we are appalled and yet complicit in his exhibition on stage. We will him to continue but wish he would stop, for his sake as well as our own.

    We watch his saga return again and again from the failed marriages and lost children of so-called maturity to the plight of his parents and, further, the egg from which he was born. His lamentation and rant help the judge locate grief for a wife who has recently died and absence of children to remember her by. The comedian produces catharsis for those who remain. He started by seeming a stand-in for all egotistic performers - actors, politicians, writers at festivals - but ends as a kind of holy scapegoat, one whose self-indulgence is truly designed to leech away the pain of others.

    This remarkable book, rendered into English by Grossman's veteran translator Jessica Cohen, teases the reader as nakedly as the comedian does his crowd. On every page, we encounter an implied invitation to set the book down but the performer's struggle to muffle and at the same time release the howls from his soul is too profoundly haunting. If this book strikes any reader as yet another therapy for its author, it is likewise a challenge to all those tempted to judge: have you delved into, exposed and worked through analogous traumas of your own with anything like such excruciating honesty?

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