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