Everyone knows that successful stand up routines are laughs at the expense of grief, or embarrassment, or pain of some kind. The laughing picks a sore and in many cases, starts the healing. The novel-length comedy routine given by Dovaleh Greenstein one night in a worn-down beach town is unique. The night of the performance is his birthday. He will be fifty-seven. He will give a one-of-a-kind, career-ending show that looks at his life, his heritage, and one particular loss that shaped him as a youth. He wants to connect the dots. He invites a witness.
David Grossman manages an extraordinary breakthrough in the consciousness of readers. Dov is not an appealing man. He is old and his jokes are not funny. He often berates his audience and embarrasses them. He is not politically correct. Most of his audience walks out. But somewhere in there is a sense of history itself, the whole boring humiliating sordid joyous beautiful and yes funny ball of wax…the thing that forms us…the things that make us human.
"He darts across the stage like a windup toy, cackling: ‘Being! Being! Being!’ He stops and slowly turns to the room with the gleaming face of a crook, a thief, a pickpocket who got away with it. ‘Do you even grasp what a stunning idea it is to just be? How subversive it is?’"Somehow, in playing the scales of history up and down for several hours, Dov makes us sense the depth of humanity again behind the historical markers. The witness he invites to his show is a former judge, a man who knew him as a child, right before some mysterious personality-shaping event of his childhood. Dov asks this former judge to watch his show and tell him if he sees
"That thing," he said softly, "that comes out of person without his control? That thing that maybe only this one person in the world has?"Dovaleh sees another person in the audience he recognizes, though he pretends he doesn’t. He makes her explain why she feels she knows him, and whenever she expresses tendency towards kindness in her memory of him, he humiliates her a little, challenging her and memory. The audience becomes restless, angry. One man leans over to the woman and suggests she leave:
The radiance of personality, I thought. The inner glow. Or the inner darkness. The secret, the tremble of singularity. Everything that lies beyond the words that describe a person, beyond the things that happened to him and the things that went wrong and became warped in him. The same thing that years ago, when I was just starting out as a judge, I naively swore to look for in every person who stood before me, whether defendant or witness. The thing I swore I would never be indifferent to, which would be the point of departure for my judgment."
"'This guy’s not right, he’s taking us all for a ride. He’s even making fun of you.'That defense, the surety of her knowledge of Dov’s goodness, is as much about the woman herself as it is about Dov. Dov is the ultimate recreation of the tortured soul so familiar to us from other works of Jewish literature. There is nothing so tempting and hard to resist as the chance to look into another man’s hell, Grossman tells us. But the woman looks only for his humanity, his kindness.
Her lips tremble. 'That’s not true,' she whispers. 'I know him, he’s just doing make-believe.'"
Dov was pulling in and wrapping up that night, making sense of the whole long parade of his life. Being itself is subversive, comedic even. But Grossman's tale is just as much about the judge who was witnessing that night, who’d been shown early retirement because he’d been too caustic and furious in his decisions. This judge, who'd had to crawl through his own prejudices while watching Dov's show, who got back to that place where he could recognize the spark of humanity Dov was searching for. He’d wanted to remember so that he could be remembered. And it worked.
This novel has been long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. It was translated from the original Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. An interview about the translation can be found here. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio interview interview with the David Grossman is here.
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