David Grossman on the Moment He Knew non-Israelis Could Connect to His Very Israeli Novel

David Grossman, who won the Man Booker International Award, talks about transcending the culture barrier

David Grossman and Jessica Cohen in London, June 13, 2017.
Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP

In one respect, the choice of Israeli author David Grossman's book "A Horse Walks into a Bar," which won the major literary award the Man Booker International Prize on Wednesday, is a strange choice. The book, which is full of Israeli jokes and humor and whose protagonists speak Hebrew and about life in Israel, would appear to be a difficult work to get beyond the culture barrier for readers from other cultures and mentalities. Grossman himself, in a conversation with Haaretz, acknowledged having trouble himself figuring out how it happened.

"I have no idea what explains this, but if I think about books that I have read and loved, in childhood and afterwards and coming from other places and cultures, it's the combination that creates an interesting book. It's something familiar and intimate and at the same time something foreign and exotic. This combination creates the attraction and a capacity to find lines of imagination despite the remoteness."

In an effort to ensure this, the translation on of "A Horse Walks into a Bar" included a workshop attended by 15 of the translators of the book (which has been translated from Hebrew into 22 languages at this point). At the workshop, Grossman read the book, with an ensuring discussion over how to adapt the work into other languages. "Towards the end of the book, with me sitting in the room and reading the final pages of the book to my translators, my eyes on the paper, I began to hear sniffles and people pulling out tissues," Grossman recounted. "I lift my head and see that almost all of them are teary-eyed. Then I had the feeling that this could work and reach other places."

Where did the idea for this book come from, of a standup routine that becomes hara-kiri, of this extreme protagonist?

"If I knew where the good ideas come from, I would sit with them all day. These ideas jump out at you without your preparing. When such an idea comes, I have a real physical feeling. I know that a good idea has arrived. These are the characters who are not entirely complete, those with internal contradictions and fissures running their entire length. They are a great pleasure. They also create these fissures in the writer, currently," Grossman said. "I'm at the beginning of a new book. We are getting acquainted -- with mutual suspicion."

The choice of "A Horse Walks in a Bar" as the winner of this year's highly prestigious Man Booker International Prize was announced Wednesday. It includes a cash award of 50,000 British pounds ($63,800), which is split between the author and his English-language translator, Jessica Cohen. The original Hebrew edition of the book was published in Israel in 2014.

The entire plot of the book takes place in the course of a stand-up routine delivered by comedian Doveleh G., the only child of Holocaust survivors who settled in Jerusalem.  The routine gradually shifts from comedy to an account of the life of a young boy who travels from camp to the funeral of one of his parents. It is told from the stage of a club in the Netanya industrial zone and is recounted from the point of view of a member of the audience, retired Judge Avishai Lazar, who a former acquaintance of the comic.

Translator donating proceeds to B'Tselem

Cohen, who translated the book into English, has announced that she intends to donate half of her prize proceeds to B'tselem, the Israeli human rights organization that focuses on civil rights of Palestinians in the territories. At Wednesday's award ceremony, the chairman of the prize jury, Nick Barley, explained that it is shared with the translator because it is the translator who provides the bridge between cultures.

"It's a bit much [to call me] a bridge between cultures, but mediation between Israeli authors and English-language readers is work that I take seriously and it's also a pleasure and an honor for me," Cohen told Haaretz. "David's books are all challenging because his language is very complex, with many layers of meaning."

This book contains a lot of jokes and humor that don't always translate easily, if at all.

"Translating humor and jokes is a challenge in itself, but what is striking in my view in this book is actually the emotional and tragic power in it, and that's what I struggled to convey faithfully in English."

Cohen, who spoke at Wednesday's award ceremony in London right after Grossman, was received to great applause for her intention to contribute half of her proceeds to B'Tselem. "I grew up in Israel, and I feel very much connected to Israel, even though I haven't lived there for many years," the British-born Cohen said.

"It pains me to see the moral decline and the apathy of wide portions of Israeli society, and I wanted to take advantage of the platform given to me to make a symbolic act and express my support for organizations like B'Tselem that refuse to surrender to this apathy."