Eduardo Halfon: A gifted storyteller

by dollydelightly


The writer of The Polish Boxer is also its narrator or at least the two men share the same name, the same experiences and the same history. Are they in fact the same man? The reader is left to draw his own conclusions as Eduardo Halfon fuses reality and fiction, mystery and memoir into one. The Polish Boxer is divided into ten chapters, which read like individual stories told by the same narrator who spends much of his time traveling, discussing literature and contemplating his ancestral past. From the outset the reader is alerted to the fact that The Polish Boxer has a dual structure. “The visible narrative always hides a secret tale,” Halfon asserts in the opening paragraph. He later consolidates this notion when identifying the qualities of a great writer which, according to him, rest on the ability to use “language as a means of accessing a sublime, ephemeral metalanguage”. This is something Halfon does himself as he embarks on a journey to unravel the story of his grandfather while also telling his own. The narrator, a young Guatemalan literature professor with an identical background as Halfon, is jaded, disillusioned with his job and his students. Halfon’s weariness is briefly dispelled when he meets a budding undergraduate poet. Juan Kalel is a summation of Halfon’s own literary ambitions, a well of potential which the narrator immediately recognises and aims to nurture, but Kalel is forced to drop out of university to support his mother and his three sisters after his father’s sudden passing. The narrator goes to the boy’s hometown of Tecpán to return his notebook and to ask him to come back but Kalel is bound by duty, which must come before his studies, his art. Leaving the town, Halfon asserts that someone like Kalel could never abandon poetry “because poetry would never abandon him,” bringing the story to a lovely conclusion.

The eponymous chapter and two others centred exclusively on Halfon’s grandfather are by far the best of the lot. Halfon relays his grandfather’s story of surviving Auschwitz with a certain tenderness and a certain curiosity, a universal curiosity, which the writer bravely yields to. It took Halfon’s grandfather nearly 60 years to reveal to him the origin of the mysterious five digit number on his forearm. “It was in Auschwitz,” he told his grandson one evening. “At first I wasn’t sure I heard him,” writes Halfon, “I looked up. He was covering the number with his right hand. Drizzle poured against the roof tiles. This, he said rubbing his forearm gently. It was in Auschwitz, he said.” The chapter showcases Halfon’s prowess both as a writer and a storyteller. The startling images conveying the tragic events at Sachsenhausen concentration camp stick in the mind with uneasy, lingering, poignancy. The writer brings the story to an equally startling close“All I could imagine,” he writes , “was an endless line of individuals, all naked, all pale, all thin, all weeping or saying Kaddish in absolute silence, all devout believers in a religion whose faith is based on numbers, as they waited in line to be numbered themselves.” Elsewhere in the book, however, Halfon doesn’t do so well. Often, his descriptions and analogies jar as they do, for example, when he says his friend Milan Rakić has the look of a “well meaning vampire,” or observes that “the air smelled clean, naked,” or refers to a pair of eyes as “sky blue” or describes a particular word falling “like a dead dragonfly into a bowl of warm lentil soup”.   

Halfon excels as a writer when dealing with intangible, abstract, themes such as memory, desire and identity but errs again with relentless name dropping. Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway  Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, Thelonious Monk, Lee Marvin, Andrei Tarkovsky, e.e cummings, Woody Allen, Fred Astaire, Federico Fellini, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Liv Ullman, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Amedeo Modigliani all get a mention. This list is not exhaustive either.  The 192 page book is inundated with mentions of the great and the famous, to a gratuitous degree akin to boastful perorations about one’s intelligence. And there is little doubt that Halfon is intelligent, certainly in the way he deals with difficult and contentious subjects,  intrepidly confronting his own fears, prejudices and insecurities. “I couldn’t get far enough away from Judaism,” he confesses, “while Milan would never be close enough to the Gypsies.”  Halfon makes no secret of his apostasy, of his distaste for organised religion, of his distaste for Judaism in particular, the faith of his father and his “glass house world”. On the other hand, the writer is very clearly passionate about and fascinated by his immediate heritage. Guatemala is a place of wonder for Halfon, who pays homage to its rich and varied cultural traditions throughout the book. “Guatemala place names never cease to amaze me,” Halfon writes, for example, “They can be like gentle waterfalls, or beautiful cats purring, erotically, or itinerant jokes – it all depends…I suppose Guatemalan place names are the same as Guatemalans, when it comes down to it: a mix of delicate indigenous breezes and coarse Spanish phrases used by equally coarse conquistadors whose draconian imperialism is imposed in a ludicrous, brutal way.”

As the story progresses Halfon’s attention shifts from his grandfather to Milan, whom the writer travels to Belgrade to find after his postcards cease arriving. “I felt seduced, I guess,” Halfon tells his girlfriend Lía when she asks what had prompted him to go in search of the Gypsy pianist, “seduced by his music, seduced by his postcards, seduced by his story, seduced by the revolutionary tremors of his spirit, seduced by a smokey, erotic image…” Contemplating his experiences, Halfon concludes that there is always “more than one truth to everything”.  Life, love, literature. This point is further fortified when Halfon’s grandfather changes details of his survival story, reshaping his own memories, his own history and his grandson’s telling of it. “A story is nothing but a lie. An illusion,” Halfon writes early in the book, “And that illusion only works if we trust in it.” But sadly we no longer do; the writer shatters it in order to show literature’s chimerical nature, its artifice and casuistry. Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a sorcerer might perform,” Halfon writes toward the end of the book, “making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing. Or perhaps literature needs to construct one reality by destroying another – something that in a very intuitive sense my Grandfather knew – that is, by destroying and resurrecting itself from its own debris.” Halfon’s examination of perception and reality, fact and fiction, is interesting and interestingly approached, but if a story is in fact false does it make it less beautiful, moving or engrossing? On the whole, The Polish Boxer lacks cohesion. The three chapters dedicated to Halfon’s grandfather read like an independent story integrated between other independent stories, loosely bound together by a singular narrator and a handful of reoccurring references.

The Polish Boxer is Halfon’s first book in English, his ninth overall. It was originally conceived as a collection of stories and perhaps this is the reason why the chapters read like episodic shorts, each one varying in matter and subject yet linked to the next by seemingly arbitrary yet correlated elements: Guatemala, history, religion, identity, literature. The interconnection is made seamless by Halfon’s expert hand; it’s clear he is a seasoned writer and a gifted storyteller capable of producing vivid and beautiful prose. But sometimes his aesthetic and value decisions show lapses in judgement. As they do, for example, when Halfon assert that he cannot image anyone being able to resist falling in love with a woman “who had come back from vacation with her pubis shaved smooth” or when he says he associates “acts of power with sexual acts” and it may have “something to do with being Jewish”. But these are trivial grievances, and one can easily see why Halfon has recently been named one of the best young Latin American writers by the Hay Festival of Bogotá and was awarded the prestigious José María de Pereda Prize. He has also received the Guggenheim Fellowship to work on continuing The Polish Boxer, which is a great story and one that makes the reader feel as if he’s being “dragged along in the author’s wake,” through Guatemala, Belgrade and Auschwitz, through literature and history, through death and love, through life.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 192 pages
ISBN: 9781908968074

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