Dov Greenstein, a 57-year-old stand-up comedian, is at the center of David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar, published in 2014 and winner of the Man Booker International Prize (2017). The novel takes place during one comedy night in a basement club in the Israeli town of Netanya. The show is narrated by Avishai Lavar, a retired judge and childhood friend of the comedian. Although he hadn’t seen him in ages, Dov invited Avishai to his show with a bizarre request:

“I want you to look at me,” he spurted. “I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterwards tell me”.

“Tell you what?”

“What you saw”.

Just like Avishai and all audience members, readers follow Dov’s painful show: he starts telling off-color jokes, picking on the audience that quickly becomes hostile. As the evening progresses, more and more spectators leave the club. Soon a supposedly fun comedy night takes a darker turn – and so does the book, which is “neither remotely funny nor an easy read”.

More black than comedy

Despite being about a stand-up at a comedy club, A Horse Walks into a Bar is far more black than humor. During his show, Dov shares his tragic story: as a lonely skinny kid, he was a victim of bullying. His father was physically abusive, while his mother was a Holocaust survivor, haunted by her memories. To avoid getting beaten up, Dov used to walk on his hands – so recalls Azulai, another spectator from his childhood. Yet, if when they were kids Dov protected her, now she hardly recognizes him: “Why are you like this? You were a good boy!”, Azulai cries out during the show.

At the age of 14, Dov went to a junior Israeli Army camp with Avishai: together they also attended math lessons with the same tutor and became sort of friends. As Dov tells about how he was picked on by his peers, the judge’s memory starts flooding back, filled with regret and shame for not protecting his friend.

One day at the camp, the soldiers tell Dovalesh that he has to go home to attend a family funeral. Yet, nobody tells him which of his parents died. And so it starts a seemingly endless ride home with an army cadet who tries to comfort the boy by telling jokes. The punch line of one of his jokes – “a horse walks into a bar” – becomes the title of Grossman’s book.

Laughter and grief

At the Man Booker International Prize ceremony, the judges praised Grossman’s novel with these words:

Written with empathy, wisdom and emotional intelligence, A Horse Walks into a Bar is a mesmerizing meditation on the opposite forces shaping our lives: humor and sorrow, loss and hope, cruelty and compassion, and how even in the darkest hours we find the courage to carry on.

Written after To the End of the Land (2008) and Falling Out of Time (2011), both exploring the feeling of grief experienced after the loss of a child, A Horse Walks into a Bar merges comedy and tragedy. As Grossman said, “it takes some time after a trauma to start to be able to make fun of it… and yet it has a kind of a healing aspect to it, the fact that people are able to laugh again”. And that is also true for Dov, who eventually comes to terms with his tragic past.

Along with Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua, Grossman is an internationally renowned Israeli author, translated into over 30 languages. His literary works include essays, children’s books, novels, and a libretto for a children’s opera. Grossman is also a peace activist: The Yellow Wind (1987) sharply depicts what he observed on the West Bank in early 1987.