David Grossman kindly accepted Ignas in his private house near Jerusalem and they talked for about an hour, touching some politics, but mostly discussing literature. The interview occurred at the end of October, 2019.
The humour of your character in the novel brings the audience to an edge where it opens something entirely new in the perception of the world. And I wonder how far you could go with humour and laughter solving the traumas of the past.
Yeah. I believe humour should have no limitations. Of course, there are some topics that you expect some people to be tactful regarding it because, for example, jokes about the . I have a feeling that we, the Jews, we have the right to make jokes about the Shoah and I would advise other people to be more tactful about that.
But somehow, when you laugh, you breathe. And the laughter is an attempt to break through suffocation and to allow you to be able to look at the traumatic, tragic situation from another point of view. Not to belittle it, not to make fun of it, but to be able to move within the deadlock of the situation.
Humour, in general, I think, it shows flexibility and ability to re-articulate a situation. If you’re able to laugh at something, it means that you are not paralyzed by it, that you’re not a victim of it, that you’re ready to regenerate yourself within it. By the way, many people mistake telling jokes to having a sex of humour. [Laughs] Sex of humour… Sense of humour. It’s not the same. And I’m quite allergic to people who come and tell me jokes, especially after this book, because people started to send jokes for me to insert them into the new edition of the book.
Since almost every joke here has some meaning that is relevant for the story, sometimes not in a direct way, but very much indirectly, I did not include them.
Before I wrote the book, I was able to tell 2 or 3 jokes only. I love jokes, but I usually forget them. Now, I have an arsenal of let’s say 50 new jokes [Laughs], but I’m cautious not to use them.
I also heard that it’s common for any person to consider himself (or herself) having a good sense of humour. Somebody told me that, in two things, people believe being better than average: in the sense of humour and driving.
You’re right. I recognize it as a manifestation of vitality. And no one wants to say he has no vitality, or he (or she) has no libido. The ability to tell a joke makes you a member of the gang, and vital. So, I guess because of that.
The same goes for driving, especially in Israel, where every driver is a robber driver. [Laughs]. You drive like a wildcat here.
No, I cannot say that. I think the parts in the book that are political allowed me to say things that otherwise are hard to say here. I am very critical regarding what happens here regarding the occupation, regarding the Israeli government, regarding the Palestinians as well.
When you write a book, you will be a sinner if you do not write from the Id. Writing from the Id brings out dirty stuff that this conflict produces inside the Israelis and Palestinians: all the dirt, prejudices and superstitions.
And in that sense, the comedian in my novel allows people to let go of their inhibitions, and suddenly people cry out everything they wanted to cry all their life.
Yeah. It’s not about politics. Usually, there is this misunderstanding that if you come from Israel, immediately, you have to be political. Politics pollute us, we are immersed, and it has an enormous effect on our lives, of course. Sometimes we just have the right to be just nasty, irritating, and annoying people without being political. And in that book, “A Horse Walks into a Bar”, I think the main thing is to show how.
One mistake may put a person’s life on a different track in his life. What happened to Dovel, the comedian when he was 15, influenced and doomed all his life to be on a particular path. And this path is in parallel to the real-life he should have had. His character, his real authentic character, is different from the one he puts on stage.
Dovel was a very tender child. He was delicate, exposed, and without a thick skin. I guess because of the need to protect himself from the outcome of what he did in the story; he had to grow upon him very thick skin of vulgarity, rudeness, violence, cruelty, and cynicism.
I think cynicism is a very efficient way to keep us removed from the things that matter to us. And because of that, he lived all his life in parallel to the one he should have been.
And suddenly a power that he cannot control like a volcanic power erupts from him and he must tell his real story, the story that brought him to be the one he is now. How many people are living just in parallel with their real selves?
And you feel in these people as if they are singing near the right tone. They do not sing the right tone but just very close to the right tone and all their life is a kind of discrepancy with themselves. They don’t find their place. They adjust because all of us adjust. People adapt to wrong marriages, and they can live for 50 years in the same marriage that is not good for them.
could have worked in the insurance company for 25 years. Just think how tormented he was. People are living the wrong gender for all their life because they are shy or ashamed or embarrassed to reveal who they really are.
So, if you look at many of us in many important parts of our lives, do not live the real-lives we should have had. This is maybe a power of literature and art to allow us the privilege and the opportunity to go back even for a day or for a minute to our real nightmare of our real self. And suddenly, when that happens, there is such a flow of things we have uninhabited and suppressed.
If you live in parallel to yourself, all the time, there are pulses of pain and insult, and of grief even, because someone has been murdered if you live not your real-life but a false life.And in literature, you can get to this place where suddenly you are yourself, and there is such a pleasure even when this self is terrible, but you are yourself. “Are” with a capital “A” — you ARE yourself.
And this was what happened to Dovel in this book. For years, he did not allow himself to feel even longing for the one he had killed. Only when he becomes his real self, he’s able to feel longing.
It’s about people who were fighting both Nazis and Soviets, but they were also supposedly collaborating with Nazis at the very beginning. And as you know, the whole population of Jewish people, almost all were exterminated in Lithuania in the early 40s, similarly as in Poland. And there were about 200,000 of them.
Well, it was never denied, but there were also people who tried to save Jewish people. They were hiding Jewish people from Nazis; now, they are being honored and awarded.
Also, there is one complicated layer about Lithuanians traumatized by the Soviet regime. And without this sort of humour and open approach, people will stay paralyzed and will be able to deal with dirty ways of discussion and blaming each other. So many dirty, nasty things happened during that short period, and it’s still under the surface and affecting the whole society. So, it’s painful, indeed.
Lithuania is not a neutral place for Jews. When you invite me to come, I need to overcome some resistance inside of me. I look at you, a very nice human being, but I will inevitably think of what happened then. It will be a challenge for me.
Today, it’s another era. It’s a tragic wound in our history.
The wound is deep, and the efforts of Lithuanian writers to treat it with literature have not yet borne fruit. And in this novel, you give an example, a recipe that is probably not the only one but effective.
Those issues should be dealt with in two ways. One is not enough.
One is a scientific and historical way. That’s the way of the historians to check the facts and clearly describe processes and responsible personalities.
And the second way that goes simultaneously with the first, with the scientific one, is the artistic one. The creative direction of touching traumas from the past is the best way to make us identify with what had happened.
And to put ourselves back then to see how we would have acted: as a victim or as a victimizer. Both sides are essential.
I think you can achieve this through art. Art forces you to put yourself there in the heart of the trauma, and ask questions about how you would have acted.
Yeah, then it is the wrong answer.
Well, I think a Jew is someone who never felt at home in the world. Even in the most hospitable places, there was always an air of the option of being uprooted. Suddenly anti-Semites started to persecute the Jews and to exterminate them.
So, there is this deep primal need to have a home in the world, to have a place that will be ours, that we shall feel confident in it, that we shall see or foresee a sequence of children and great grandchildren. A place that we shall be able to decode all the codes.
I can live in any other place today and I get interesting invitations. But I want to stay here because this space is relevant to me because I can decode things. I want to live my life in a relevant place. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I will stay here.
Now, since the world has failed in protecting the Jews throughout the last 2,000 years, we have enough material to draw conclusions from. We deserve a place of our own, a homeland for the Jewish people. I know it might sound strange, but there are other nation-states, Israel is not the only nation-state. We are the nation-state of the Jewish people, but we are also the homeland of the non-Jewish minorities who live here, the Muslims, the Circassians, the Bedouin, the Christians, the Druze.
And they and their children should get the exact equality as we get. I want them to feel at home. It is their home. And Israel has to learn how to be a majority. The Israeli Jews have to learn how to be a majority — we were a minority for most of our history, and now we are a majority.
It’s complicated to be a majority. You have to know how to treat your minority with grace, with generosity, with wisdom, with appreciation, with curiosity. Jews never felt life without fear. But as a majority, we should allow our minority life without fear, living with dignity. I don’t have to waste so many words, everybody understands what it is.
Now, the catch here — yes, we are the majority with Jews in Israel, but frankly we feel like we’re the minority.
Yeah, we are surrounded by 300 million Arab Muslims, that most of them do not like us. I read Arabic, I read Arab papers. They don’t want us here. The Middle East has never internalized the right of Israel to exist. Until this happens, it will take many generations. In the end, it will happen, but it will take a lot of time.
We are in a hostile region to behave in a very humanistic way, to encourage peace, to promote dialogue with our neighbors.
We cannot rely only on our military might. Somewhere down the road, there will be a stronger army, that is more passionate than us, crazier than us, and they will win against us. We must stay very strong and do everything to improve the relationship between us and our neighbors.
One of the two is not enough. Just to be a peacenik is not enough. Just to be a warrior is not enough. We have to have both.
Do I see it happening? You know, two years ago, on this sofa where you sit, sat Mr. , the new hope of Israel. He came to talk to me when he left the army, but then he decided whether to go to politics. I asked him during the two hours conversation, “What will you do regarding creating peace between the Palestinians and us?” He replied, “I cannot say that I believe the Palestinians or that I believe the peace is possible now. But unlike Mr. Netanyahu I will turn every stone to look for the slightest chance to have peace, to have a dialogue.”
So, this gives some hope. Let’s see if there is a reason for this hope.
It also reminded me of one line from this novel of yours, when a character offers big applause to non-thinking. And me and my friends sometimes discuss the difficulty of thinking. If one tries to focus and think into the future, how much rational thinking can help here?
The more the situation becomes complicated, the less there is a space for rationality. People are drawn into religious, nationalist, and racist thoughts. It makes their life more comfortable. Yes, if you divide the world, you find comfort and solace in an idea that idealizes yourself, your heritage, your values, and demonize the values and the heritage of the other side.
You are immersed back into the most primal instincts of survival and fighting. You elect time and again belligerent warrior leaders, because you see the world in terms of war: it is either me or you. Both of us can not live together. That is how fanatic and nationalist people think.
The tragedy is that when you elect a warrior to be your leader, the leader dooms you to war, and it’s kind of a vicious circle. And people at war tend to elect warriors again and again.
You see, as it is in Israel: with one exception of the person who was more belligerent than all the generals, even if himself was a civilian, all the people who led us in the last 20, 30 years were high generals. And of course, the generals, they know what war is. They don’t know what peace is.
The idea of peace is very vague. I’m talking to people about peace, but I never had one day of peace in my life. I don’t know what peace is. You know much more than me about peace, even in the problematic situation of Lithuania.
I have never experienced the feeling of having a future of being protected. I don’t know all that. I can only imagine.
Well, Lithuanians indeed were quite lucky. In my life, I’ve only experienced one limited military conflict in Vilnius, where 13 people were killed. But there are other sorts of wars going on nowadays like trade wars, and sometimes they can be very fierce indeed.
Probably, a nuclear war is not so much an option even for those military leaders or politicians nowadays, when they have other means.
Yeah. Yeah. And yet, we have here a very tribal war with knives and stones. I mean, Israel is very well equipped militarily, but most of our casualties in the last three years came from the most primitive ways of killing each other.
Can we go back to literature?
I prefer fiction. Nothing can be compared to the pleasure of creating a world. Of really having a whole piece of reality that I invented, that all the parts and particles of it are functioning simultaneously in a very harmonious and natural way.
I was asked some days ago, “When do you know that you finished writing a book?” And I replied, “When it starts to tempt me to continue it forever.” It is so smoothly running itself as if the story doesn’t need me now to interfere and to change it.
This is the point to cut the relationship. I mean, because then I start to know too much about the book and the characters and I think if you know too much, you feed your reader with a spoon and this is not good. The book is written after all in a kind of a blind spot, blind point in the brain.
You know what the blind spot is?
Yeah. And I think this is the place where the book should be written. You can be an aware and opinionated writer, but the heart of the story is obscured from you. And maybe the reader knows it before the writer knows.
The writer should not know why he’s writing. He should be surprised all the time or even betrayed. In my protected life with this library in this house I feel safe, but the book should unearth my protections and take me to places that I don’t dare to go to in my life.
So, in a way, the book is more loyal to me than myself.
You asked about the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. The energies are different. When I write fiction, I’m on fire all the time. I can hardly sleep. I can barely do other things. I cannot write in parallel, even a note for the grocery store. I’m totally engaged and taken by the story. Writing non-fiction, you describe a reality that already exists. You don’t have to invent this reality.
Of course, you invent the reality because you describe it in words that nobody used before yourself. The writer is someone who feels real claustrophobia in the words of other people. I don’t want to use words that have been used by other authors. I have to break from this suffocation of cliché.
So, when I describe a reality that is already articulated by authors before me, I use other words. When I use different words, I create other elements, other aspects of this reality. So, after all, even writing non-fiction is an act of writing fiction.
It was after I finished my first novel, “The Smile of the Lamb.” It was the first novel about the occupation, written 16 years after it. For sixteen years no Israeli writer was able to face the occupation in literature.
And then, towards the anniversary of the 20th year for the occupation, a paper in Israel approached me and asked me to write four, five pages about the situation in the occupied territories. I agreed. Therefore, I spent nine weeks in the occupied territories, and I produced the whole book, “The Yellow Wind.”
Suddenly I understood that I don’t anymore know what happens in the occupied territories. I wrote the novel in ’83. Four years passed, I’ve not visited the occupied territories and in ’87 I said: “OK, let’s go and see, what is going on there.”
It comes from a feeling of profound distortion. I regarded Jews as highly moral people, with high values, high expectations. How can it be that Jews collaborated with such brutality?
And I just went there. I left my home, drove half an hour, and planted myself in a refugee camp of . One of the ugliest, toughest places. I was surrounded by many young men who were hostile and suspicious. They couldn’t understand what I was doing there. I said: “I came to listen to you.” They thought I’m from an intelligence agency. They thought I’m from the secret police. I came like that, you know - short sleeves, not carrying a gun. If you want to hear a story, you don’t take a gun.
For some hours they boiled me under the blazing sun. They did not allow me to move. Hundreds of people made a circle around me. Then suddenly, an old lady crossed through all the lines, grabbed me by the hand, and she said, “Come, come with me.” She took me to her hut. She understood what those men did not. She started telling stories about her home in Israel, the place she has been deported from or ran away from in the war of ’48. She spoke about her longing to this place, about her childhood. Her daughter in law came, a woman of 40 years old. And her daughter, a child. And many more people came. It was amazing.
I finished my notebook in one day. I’m not sure, but maybe it was the first time in 20 years of occupation, when such a dialogue between an Israeli and Palestinian occurred. Because an Israeli came to listen to them, not to dictate them, not to impose on them, not to bully them, but to listen from them about their agony, about their story, about their justice, about their mistakes and longings.
I was just writing. I didn’t argue with her. I did not agree with everything they said, but I came to listen not to argue. And that was the first day. After nine weeks, I produced this book.
Yeah. This tells a lot about the difference, if you would come as a journalist, probably, you could have the same intentions, but the approach would be different because you were already an artist after writing a novel.
Yeah, yeah. I also think because I’m a writer, I used other words to describe the situation. And suddenly, when people are given new words, they feel the situation in a new way, as if I outlined the nuance of the situation by the words I’ve chosen.
And I think this book had a significant impact on Israel. It came like a storm when the book came out. Because most people just did not know what it meant to be occupied.
Well, Ignas, I will be Israeli rude, but in an hour and five minutes, I have a lecture in a place in the south of Israel. I must go.