© Toby Whitebread
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The central question in David Grossman’s new novel could hardly be more topical: how much reality can we bear to face, and what do we do when facing it becomes unbearable? It is a question the award-winning Israeli novelist has been asking in diverse ways for more than 30 years in consistently fine, penetrating works. These include books for both children and adults and encompass an impressive range of forms, from non-fiction to short stories to full-length novels to, most recently, his 2011 genre-defying meditation on grief Falling Out of Time.

The intensity and urgency of Grossman’s questioning has only increased with the years and his new novel is no exception. A Horse Walks Into A Bar is set over a single evening in a modern-day nightclub in the small Israeli town of Netanya, where stand-up comedian Dov Greenstein is performing an act like no other. Among the audience is a former childhood friend, Avishai Lazar, a retired judge and widower, whom Dov has not seen since he was nine years old but has recently contacted out of the blue and persuaded to come along for this one night.

The novel is narrated in the first person by Avishai who watches as Dov warms up the room with a rapid-fire succession of jokes and slapstick. “Listen up, Netanya baby!” he yells. “We’re gonna throw down the mother of all shows tonight . . . Yeah, open up that hook, table ten, set ’em free . . . there you go!” Grossman renders in second-by-second detail the comedian’s art of keeping an audience on a knife-edge with his verbal acrobatics.

Long high-octane monologues are intercut with squirm-inducing exchanges with the audience. “Doll-face”, he shouts at one of them, “Yes, you, the one who put her make-up on in the dark!” At 57, Dov is a master of his trade, knows just when to pull back from the brink and reel in his listeners, forging what Avishai describes as a “murky sense of partnership that prickles deep in our guts and stirs up a sticky, messy pleasure both sickening and alluring”.

Off-colour jokes about settlers, peaceniks, Jews and Arabs — nothing is off-limits and much of it is extremely funny, but it’s also tightly controlled and carefully paced. But as Dov’s act takes a steadily darker turn, the reader’s unease mounts along with that of his audience. Watching warily from the back of the room, Avishai documents the disintegration with lawyerly precision. One moment Dov “runs his hands up and down his body seductively”, the next he “darts across the stage like a wind-up toy”. Slowly Avishai realises he has been summoned to the show to witness a confession linked to long-ago events in which he himself is deeply implicated.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar is, at one level, an extended riff on Jewish humour and Grossman draws on a plentiful stock of much-loved gags — “The food here is terrible, and the portions are so small!” — but we grimace as we grin, because equally the novel is a searing dissection of the more dangerous functions of humour. Dov is the archetypal fool, a “treacherous jester”, as Avishai calls him, licensed by his trade to tell uncomfortable truths. “Do you even understand how stressful it is when you’re three,” Dov demands, “and your dad makes you take a different route to pre-school every day to confuse the enemy?” Cynicism and comedy protect him from personal tragedy, but they also imprison him.

Grossman has said in the past that “when you write a story you must become another person, peeling off layers of cataract from the soul.” As the evening progresses, Dov steps out from behind his jester’s mask to confront the anguish of his childhood and the long shadow cast by the Holocaust, goading himself and his audience into awareness that “an aversion to remembering one enormous painful memory can slowly dull and blot out huge parts of the past”.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar is a short book, its action confined to the space of a stage and the duration of two hours, creating an intense airless atmosphere that perfectly matches its subject matter. In this respect, it could not be more different from Grossman’s piercing epic, To The End Of The Land (2008), in which a middle-aged mother, Ora, embarks on an extended trek the length of Israel to avoid receiving news that her soldier son has been killed in action. Yet it circles around the same dilemma: how to endure the unendurable, how to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Ora treks to fend off her son’s future death. Dov jokes to fend off his long-dead mother. Stand-up is merely an adult version of his boyhood compulsion to walk on his hands, his only way of bearing reality being to invert it. Both characters are engaged in forms of magical thinking, rearranging reality into more palatable forms.

Few writers hold a more unflinching mirror up to Israeli society than Grossman, for which he has been both hailed and reviled by Israelis and Palestinians alike. His work stubbornly refuses to flatter or console, but it is also suffused with compassion, acutely attuned to the complexity of individual lives and the solutions people find to the challenge of that complexity. A life-long peace activist, Grossman knows that complexity first-hand. In 2006, his 20-year-old son, Uri, was killed by a Hizbollah missile in southern Lebanon, two days before a UN ceasefire came into force.

Set alongside his two previous works, Falling Out Of Time, and To the End of the Land, this new novel forms what might be called a trilogy of loss. It is a work of sombre brilliance and disquieting rage, an unsparing exploration of the seductive spell of escapism and “the corruption that is in cynicism”, as Grossman put it in his eulogy for his son. Through a supreme act of courage, Dov breaks that spell, but the last joke is on us, audience and reader, all of us who have ever fallen for the comfort of escapist thinking and mistaken it for life, while reality turns dark around us.

A Horse Walks into A Bar, by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen, Cape, RRP£14.99, 208 pages

Rebecca Abrams’ ‘The Jewish Journey: 4000 Years in 22 Objects’ will be published by Ashmolean books next year

Illustration by Toby Whitebread

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