Is­rael’s soul laid bare on a co­me­dian’s stage

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Don’t miss David Gross­man’s A Horse Walks into a Bar, a novel that of­fers pro­found in­sights into the soul of a nation and of one of its hap­less cit­i­zens, and a tes­ta­ment to the art of sto­ry­telling and lit­er­ary trans­la­tion.

“Is it the trans­la­tor’s job to send a reader abroad and pre­serve the for­eign­ness of the book, or to ad­here more closely to the sen­si­bil­i­ties and par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the lan­guage it’s be­ing trans­lated into?” This ques­tion was put to Span­ish trans­la­tor Me­gan McDow­ell in an in­ter­view with The Paris Re­view af­ter her trans­la­tion of Ar­gen­tinian writer Sa­manta Sch­we­blin’s Fever Dream be­came a fi­nal­ist for this year’s Man Booker In­ter­na­tional Prize.

The win­ner of the prize was Gross­man’s A Horse Walks into a Bar, trans­lated from the He­brew by Amer­i­can trans­la­tor Jes­sica Co­hen. Gross­man’s ex­tra­or­di­nary book is pre­sented in col­lo­quial Amer­i­can (“I get creeped out”) while ab­so­lutely main­tain­ing its Is­raeli sen­si­bil­i­ties and for­eign­ness. This is clearly the mark of a fine trans­la­tor.

Co­hen’s great­est achieve­ments are cap­tur­ing and main­tain­ing the wild vari­a­tions and di­gres­sions in the voice of its dis­in­te­grat­ing, con­fes­sional stand-up comic and the shift­ing dy­nam­ics of a restive au­di­ence through­out a manic two-hour per­for­mance.

Co­hen has trans­lated Gross­man be­fore, no­tably To the End of the Land, as well as works by other lead­ing Is­raeli writ­ers. Gross­man is one of Is­rael’s great writ­ers and this is his 11th book. He is trans­lated into more than 30 lan­guages and ses­sions were run with him for some of the trans­la­tors of this new novel.

Un­like in Aus­tralia, where read­ers may barely be aware they are read­ing a trans­la­tion, and the art and craft of trans­la­tion are rarely cel­e­brated or even ac­knowl­edged (there is only one sig­nif­i­cant, but sel­dom noted, trans­la­tion prize in Aus­tralia), in­creas­ing at­ten­tion is be­ing paid else­where, even in An­glo­sphere coun­tries, to trans­lated works, both fic­tion and non­fic­tion.

The Man Booker In­ter­na­tional Prize, in­sti­tuted in 2004, makes a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the pro­mo­tion of world lit­er­a­ture. It was ini­tially awarded bi­en­ni­ally to a body of work by a liv­ing au­thor avail­able in English trans­la­tion. It re­warded one au­thor’s “con­tin­ued creativ­ity, devel­op­ment and over­all con­tri­bu­tion to fic­tion on the world stage”.

Since last year, the award has been given an­nu­ally to a sin­gle book in English trans­la­tion and the £50,000 ($82,200) prize is shared equally be­tween au­thor and trans­la­tor. Last year’s win­ner was an­other haunt­ing and vis­ceral mas­ter­piece, The Veg­e­tar­ian, by South Korean writer Han Kang, trans­lated by Deb­o­rah Smith. Kang’s new book, also trans­lated by Smith, is Hu­man Acts. Of A Horse Walks into a Bar, Nick Barely, chair­man of the 2017 judg­ing panel, said: “David Gross­man has at­tempted an am­bi­tious high-wire act of a novel, and he’s pulled it off spec­tac­u­larly.”

“High-wire” is an apt phrase here as the whole of Gross­man’s tale com­prises a last-ditch stand-up per­for­mance by the clapped-out Do­valeh Green­stein, Dov or Do­valeh G for short. The ini­tials DG are not ac­ci­den­tal or ir­rel­e­vant. Sup­pos­edly for his 57th birth­day, ema­ci­ated Dov, who is pos­si­bly dy­ing of can­cer, puts on a per­for­mance in a run-down venue in the sec­ond-tier town of Ne­tanya.

He has in­vited (co­erced) two sig­nif­i­cant child­hood friends he has not seen for some 40 years. The main one is an em­bit­tered and sad wid­ower, re­tired mag­is­trate Lazar, who is our nar­ra­tor. The other is a very small woman, Azu­lai. As­sorted lo­cals drift in and out. They ex­pect jokes, want to laugh and for­get their daily lives. An in­ter­jec­tion: “Se­ri­ously peo­ple, we came for some laughs and this guy’s giv­ing us a Holo-

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