I am proud to announce that I have completed my first vacation task, namely, to read the Hebrew version of David Grossman’s book, the English translation of which was awarded the prestigious Man Booker International prize. I’m also glad to know that the prize money was shared equally between the author and the translator, Vanessa Cohen.
But I must admit that getting to the end of the book was a hard slog. I’ve been reading and translating Hebrew for over fifty years, and consider myself reasonably adept in the language. I have dealt with texts of various kinds – historical, literary, academic, economic – and unless the subject is very esoteric and specialized I am usually able to cope with most texts. In addition, there is nothing particularly difficult about the language of this book. Yes, there are one or two jokes, colloquial expressions, and plays on words that might present a challenge to the translator, but the Hebrew Grossman uses is pretty much the language of everyday speech.
His main protagonist, a rather unfunny standup comedian on a stage in a provincial Israeli town, rambles on and on, taking his audience on the bumpy ride that is the story of his life. His physical and psychological attributes contain nothing to endear him to either his audience or to the reader, and hence it was such a struggle for this particular reader to persevere in reading another few pages every now and again.
The entire evening’s performance goes from bad to worse, with Dovele, the ‘comedian,’ meandering in and around any subject that happens to pop into his head, eventually describing a particularly unpleasant journey from summer camp to his home. The narrator describes the growing impatience of the physical audience, which gradually trickles away as the performance continues. In the end only a handful of people are left. By persevering in continuing to read to the end, the reader is identifying to some extent with the narrator, who knew Dovele when they were both young, and who now feels guilty at not having shown him more support in his time of need.
But is the real object of the book to make the reader feel guilty? I’ve always said that it’s guilt rather than love that makes the world go round, but to go this far in order to convey that essentially Jewish emotion seems to me to be taking things a bit too far. It seems to me that the joke’s in fact on us. The book is essentially a typically British kind of joke, known as a shaggy dog story, that has got out of hand. Shaggy dog stories are long and convoluted and don’t necessarily have to be about dogs, shaggy ot otherwise. My late father used to entertain guests with one about a horse (neighbour asks passing neighbour to help get horse into house, then up staircase, then into bathroom, all just in order to annoy visiting know-all mother-in-law when she screams, ‘John, there’s a horse in the bathroom!’ by answering ‘I know’). The telling of the tale took a good few minutes, with delightfully pretentious British manners derided with affection, and almost always occasioned hearty laughter.
But no-one feels like laughing when one gets to the end of Grossman’s book. Nor does one even feel like crying. There’s just a sense of emptiness, an exaggerated awareness of the senseless futility of life, and that you, the reader, have just wasted several precious hours in reading this sad book about a sad life in a sad place. Me, I’m reminded of a short story by, I think, Somerset Maugham, about a young boy at a British public school who is called to the Headmaster’s study to be told that the father whom he idolizes has been killed. Imagining some heroic deed he asks whether he was shot through the heart, only to learn that a balcony had collapsed in a Naples street and the pig that had been kept there had fallen on his father and killed him.
Now that’s a story well told, within reasonable limits of time and energy, and does not leave the reader feeling he/she has wasted his/her time. But that’s British humour for you, and that simply can’t be beat. It seems the Man Booker International jury lost it.