Grossman’s novel begins enthusiastically and with cringing embarrassment. ”Good evening! Good evening! Good evening to the majestic city of Caesariyaaaaaah!’ … A short, slight, bespectacled man lurches onto the stage from a side door, as if he’d been kicked through it. He takes a few faltering steps, trips, brakes himself on the wooden floor with both hands, then sharply juts his rear-end straight up.‘ It’s the exuberant beginning of Dovaleh G’s stand up show, and is only the first kick (physical and metaphorical) Dovaleh is going to receive in front of his scattered audience. Oh, and they’re not in Caesarea, the setting is Netanya, a completely different town on the Israeli coast.
Wondering why he is witnessing all this, is a retired judge with a list of good reasons for not wanting to watch the show. He’s there because of a childhood connection with Dovaleh, in fact it soon becomes apparent that the performance is all about the comic’s traumatic past. In terms of hysterical soul-baring ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ reminded me of early Philip Roth novels, but while the joke with ‘Portnoy’ is that he doesn’t really have anything to complain about, the tormented Dovaleh does. On this night especially, he is determined to tell the defining story of his life, a story that begins with child abuse and bullying and then digs deeper and deeper into how humans behave to each other and to themselves.
From his plan for the performance to his offensive jokes to the brutal way he insults and even hits himself on stage (”Hello! It’s a stand-up show! Do you still not get that? Putz!’ He gives his forehead a loud, unfathomably powerful smack. ‘That’s what they’re here for! They’re here to laugh at you!”), everything about Dovaleh’s story is shocking and disturbing. The result is one of the most striking books on the Man Booker International Shortlist. Grossman’s premise is that his anti-hero must walk the finest of lines in telling his desperately un-funny life-story while retaining his audience. It’s a balancing act that shouldn’t work; indeed, from the judge’s perspective we hear of heckling, walk-outs and an unexpected guest who almost derails the whole show. To witness such a evening might be excruciating, to read a world-class author present it is exhilarating. The Man Booker International Prize will be announced tomorrow, and this brave and painful novel is exactly the kind of work I count on them to publicise for those of us seeking the new and brilliant in translated fiction.