The Pol­ish Boxer by Ed­uardo Hal­fon

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The Pol­ish Boxer by Ed­uardo Hal­fon, trans­lated from the Span­ish by Daniel Hahn, Ol­lie Brock, Lisa Dill­man, Thomas Bun­stead, and Anne McLean. Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Press,

188 pp., $14.95 (pa­per)

Monastery by Ed­uardo Hal­fon, trans­lated from the Span­ish by Lisa Dill­man and Daniel Hahn. Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Press,

158 pp., $14.95 (pa­per)

Mourn­ing by Ed­uardo Hal­fon, trans­lated from the Span­ish by Lisa Dill­man and Daniel Hahn. Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Press,

155 pp., $15.99 (pa­per)

Half­way through Monastery, its nar­ra­tor, a writer and teacher of lit­er­a­ture named Ed­uardo Hal­fon, is en route from his na­tive Gu­atemala to Belize, where he has been in­vited to give a read­ing at a univer­sity. Af­ter a tense en­counter with a thug­gish bor­der official—Hal­fon’s Gu­atemalan pass­port has ex­pired, but he has a valid Span­ish one—the bat­tery in his bor­rowed car dies. Wait­ing for it to be re­paired, he goes into a small restau­rant where there is an enor­mous red macaw and or­ders a beer from the wait­ress, a young girl with a baby strapped to her back. A joy­fully guilt­less smoker, he is en­joy­ing his beer and cig­a­rette when the bor­der official walks in. The guard pulls the wait­ress onto his lap, “his long-nailed hand hold­ing her neck, like a hook,” while order­ing pork car­ni­tas and crack­lings.

Hal­fon thinks—as he of­ten does— about his Pol­ish grand­fa­ther, a sur­vivor of Sach­sen­hausen and Auschwitz, who used to tell him that the num­bers tat­tooed on his arm were to re­mind him of his phone num­ber. The bor­der guard is wear­ing a ring that re­minds Hal­fon of the one his grand­fa­ther had bought in 1945 and worn “for the rest of his life, for the next sixty years, on his right pinkie fin­ger, as a way of mourn­ing for his par­ents and sib­lings and friends and all the oth­ers ex­ter­mi­nated by the Nazis in the ghet­tos and con­cen­tra­tion camps.” The pas­sage that fol­lows (and con­cludes this scene) ex­em­pli­fies the themes and method of the three of Hal­fon’s four­teen books thus far trans­lated into English—The Pol­ish Boxer (2012), Monastery (2014), and, most re­cently, Mourn­ing (2018)—all of which seem like parts of a sin­gle fic­tional project with re­cur­ring char­ac­ters, de­tails, set­tings, and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, and all nar­rated by “Ed­uardo Hal­fon.” Among these pre­oc­cu­pa­tions (ob­ses­sions, re­ally) are the legacy of vi­o­lence and mass mur­der in Europe and Latin Amer­ica; the fre­quency and fa­cil­ity with which the past in­trudes upon the present; the quixotic ef­fort to sep­a­rate fam­ily myth from his­tor­i­cal fact; and the ways in which plea­sure—food, love, sex, hu­mor, cig­a­rettes, beer, the beauty of na­ture, and the sur­prises of­fered by travel—con­soles us.

The sec­tion about Hal­fon’s en­counter with the bor­der guard typ­i­fies his style: sim­ple declar­a­tive sen­tences punc­tu­ated by flights of rhetor­i­cal, in­can­ta­tory lyri­cism. Hal­fon is so struck by the re­sem­blance be­tween the guard’s ring and that of his grand­fa­ther that he won­ders if it was “ex­actly the same” one:

Or at least it was all ex­actly like the ring in my mem­ory, the ring as I re­called it or as I wanted to re­call it, on my grand­fa­ther’s pale and slightly crooked right pinkie fin­ger. And although I knew it was im­pos­si­ble, even pre­pos­ter­ous, even ab­surd, I couldn’t help imag­in­ing that this ring, on this greasy hand, was in­deed my grand­fa­ther’s ring with the black stone. Not a sim­i­lar one. Not an ex­act replica. But the same one .... The one that, when he died, was in­her­ited by one of my mother’s broth­ers. The one that had been stolen from a safe one night by a thief who never knew what he was steal­ing; by a thief who never knew that in that in­signif­i­cant and somber black stone, one could still see the per­fect re­flec­tions of my grand­fa­ther’s ex­ter­mi­nated par­ents (Sa­muel and Masha), and the faces of my grand­fa­ther’s ex­ter­mi­nated sis­ters (Ula and Rushka), and the face of my grand­fa­ther’s ex­ter­mi­nated brother (Zal­man), and the faces of so many ex­ter­mi­nated men and women and boys and girls and ba­bies who were killed as they slept in the arms of their moth­ers, as they dreamed in the gas cham­bers; by a thief who never knew that in that small black stone it was still pos­si­ble to hear the mur­mur of all these voices, of so many voices, in­ton­ing in cho­rus the prayer for the dead.

The macaw shrieked and stretched out its wings and, still on its perch, started to flap them en­er­get­i­cally, des­per­ately, as if want­ing to fly.

The truth about his Pol­ish grand­fa­ther—who claimed to have been res­cued from death in Auschwitz by the sage ad­vice of a Pol­ish boxer, and at other times was said to have been saved by his own car­pen­try skills—is only one of the mys­ter­ies that Hal­fon (the char­ac­ter and per­haps the au­thor) is at­tempt­ing to solve. But one hes­i­tates to iden­tify the au­thor too closely with his epony­mous hero, who early on in The Pol­ish Boxer warns us:

A story is noth­ing but a lie. An il­lu­sion. And that il­lu­sion only works if we trust in it. The same way a magic trick im­presses us even though we know per­fectly well that it’s a trick. The rab­bit doesn’t ac­tu­ally dis­ap­pear. The woman hasn’t ac­tu­ally been sawed in half. But we be­lieve it. The il­lu­sion is real, oxy­moron­i­cally.

This pas­sage oc­curs in a chap­ter about Hal­fon’s ef­forts to teach Mau­paus­sant, Poe, and Flan­nery O’Con­nor to en­ti­tled Gu­atemalan univer­sity stu­dents with no in­ter­est in lit­er­a­ture. When his only tal­ented pupil—a gifted poet and de­voted reader of Rim­baud, Pes­soa, and Rilke—drops out of school and re­turns home to the high­lands, Hal­fon drives into the hills to find out why he left, a jour­ney that in­spires a med­i­ta­tion on place names that com­presses, into a few sen­tences, three of Hal­fon’s re­cur­rent con­cerns—the beauty of lan­guage, the com­plex­i­ties of what it means to be Gu­atemalan, and the en­dur­ing legacy of his­tor­i­cal vi­o­lence:

Gu­atemalan place names never cease to amaze me. They can be like gen­tle water­falls, or beau­ti­ful cats purring erot­i­cally, or itin­er­ant jokes . . . . 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.

When Hal­fon finds his for­mer stu­dent on the farm his fam­ily works but doesn’t own, and which the young man must now take over from his fa­ther, who has died, Hal­fon is re­minded of the harsh lives of most Gu­atemalans, peo­ple who rarely wind up in his lit­er­a­ture class. Mean­while the stu­dent of­fers his for­mer teacher a les­son about lan­guage and po­etry:

Do you know, Hal­fon, how to say po­etry in Cakchikel? Juan asked sud­denly. And I said no, I had no idea. Pach’un tzij, he said. Pach’un tzij, I re­peated. And I sa­vored the word for a time, tak­ing plea­sure in it purely for its sound, for the de­lec­ta­ble lure of its pro­nun­ci­a­tion. Pach’un tzij, I said once more. Do you know what it means, he asked, and although I hes­i­tated, I said no, but that it didn’t re­ally mat­ter. Braid of words, he said. It’s a ne­ol­o­gism that means braid of words, he said. Pach’un tzij, he in­toned, giv­ing it an el­e­gance that could only be gained through unskep­ti­cal spir­i­tu­al­ity. It’s some­thing like an em­broi­dered blouse of words, like a huipil of words, he said, and that was all.

Many of the chap­ters in Hal­fon’s books cen­ter around jour­neys, travel for plea­sure and work, travel for all the rea­sons that make im­mi­grants leave home. In the sec­ond half of Mourn­ing, Hal­fon tells his fam­ily story: his Le­banese grand­fa­ther em­i­grated to Gu­atemala via Cor­sica, his Pol­ish grand­fa­ther from Łódź via Auschwitz. Like his nar­ra­tor, Hal­fon left Gu­atemala with his fam­ily in 1981 as a boy of ten, flee­ing the long civil war that re­sulted in the geno­ci­dal mas­sacre of

indige­nous Gu­atemalans. They moved to south­ern Florida, and Hal­fon—a gifted math stu­dent with no in­ter­est in fic­tion—stud­ied en­gi­neer­ing in North Carolina. In a piece for The Guardian, he de­scribed re­turn­ing to Gu­atemala in 1993, know­ing lit­tle about the coun­try and speak­ing only pass­able Span­ish. He worked for his fa­ther’s con­struc­tion com­pany for five years be­fore de­cid­ing to study phi­los­o­phy at a lo­cal univer­sity, where he dis­cov­ered lit­er­a­ture and be­came first a teacher and then a writer. When his first novel was pub­lished in Gu­atemala in 2003, he re­ceived a threat­en­ing phone call and a dis­turb­ing visit; the Sal­vado­ran writer Ho­ra­cio Castel­lanos Moya ad­vised him to leave the coun­try. Hal­fon cur­rently lives in Nebraska.

Mourn­ing, elo­quently trans­lated by Lisa Dill­man and Daniel Hahn, is framed by the story of Hal­fon’s at­tempts to find out what hap­pened to his fa­ther’s mys­te­ri­ous older brother Salomón, who al­legedly drowned in Lake Amati­tlán at the age of five. When Hal­fon vis­its the lake house where he went as a child, he asks an old woman named Doña Ermelinda about his un­cle. What fol­lows is a list, or litany, of boys (not named Salomón) who drowned in the lake.

Each of the old woman’s sto­ries be­gins with the phrase “An­other drowned boy was also not named Salomón,” and goes on to tell about a boy who fell into the wa­ter while search­ing for a lost oar, and whose half-naked ghost is still said to haunt the shore of the lake; a young man killed by sol­diers be­cause his fa­ther had been preach­ing ser­mons on so­cial jus­tice; a boy who drowned dur­ing an aquatic re­li­gious pro­ces­sion; a boy who dis­ap­peared while jump­ing from a rock at a cas­tle whose cel­lar was once used as a tor­ture cham­ber for a dic­ta­tor’s en­e­mies and pris­on­ers. But the truth about Ed­uardo’s un­cle in­volves only ex­ile and pain: Salomón was a des­per­ately ill child who died far from home, alone, in a clinic to which his mother had taken him in the hope of al­le­vi­at­ing the suf­fer­ing that had af­flicted him since birth.

In Mourn­ing, Hal­fon trav­els to south­ern Italy to par­tic­i­pate in a Holo­caust me­mo­rial at a site where the orig­i­nal con­cen­tra­tion camp has been knocked down and re­placed by a replica, “a kind of mock-up or sam­ple or theme park ded­i­cated to hu­man suf­fer­ing.” And he uses a Guggen­heim grant to get to Łódź, where his grand­fa­ther lived be­fore he was sent to the camps, and where Hal­fon con­sid­ers telling his host­ess why he is wear­ing the pink over­coat to which he has al­luded in the ear­lier nov­els:

I was go­ing to tell her that, also in War­saw, I’d had to buy my ridicu­lous pink coat in a sec­ond­hand shop at the Cen­trum metro sta­tion, un­der De­fi­lad Square, be­cause the air­line had lost my suit­case, and that by the time they fi­nally brought it to my ho­tel, a few days later, the coat had be­come a part of me, and I had be­come a part of it, and my walk was now a Pol­ish woman’s walk. I was go­ing to tell her that later, af­ter much in­de­ci­sion, I’d taken a train to Auschwitz and, dressed in my pink coat, in my Pol­ish woman dis­guise, I’d pa­raded through Auschwitz with all the other tourists. At the end of each jour­ney, what Hal­fon finds is some­thing other than what he set out to dis­cover. In the Łódź apart­ment to which he has gone in search of in­for­ma­tion about his grand­fa­ther’s life be­fore the war, he learns in­stead about the lurid past of the apart­ment’s cur­rent oc­cu­pant. In Cal­abria for the cer­e­mony hon­or­ing Ital­ian Jews mur­dered by the Nazis, he meets a young woman named Ma­rina, whose grand­fa­ther, an Ital­ian sol­dier, also spent time in a con­cen­tra­tion camp; to­gether Ed­uardo and Ma­rina dis­cover how ef­fec­tively al­co­hol and the prom­ise of ro­mance can blunt the pain of remembrance.

The long­est sec­tion of The Pol­ish Boxer (for this book Dill­man and Hahn are joined by the trans­la­tors Ol­lie Brock, Thomas Bun­stead, and Anne McLean) de­scribes yet an­other jour­ney, an odyssey through Bel­grade in search of a pi­anist whom Hal­fon met in An­tigua and who has been send­ing him post­cards from around the world, a mu­si­cian who seems as peri­patetic as Hal­fon, and who may or may not be a gypsy lost in Ser­bia. The lengths to which Hal­fon goes to find his friend turns the chap­ter into a Bor­ge­sian, post-Com­mu­nist-era, comic de­tec­tive noir.

Through­out the nov­els, events are re­told, of­ten in­volv­ing char­ac­ters who seem dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent set­tings. One such in­ci­dent in­volves Hal­fon’s meet­ing the at­trac­tive Tamara in a Scot­tish bar in An­tigua. Their ini­tial en­counter is evoked when, this time in Tel Aviv, he again sees Tamara, trans­formed from an Is­raeli back­packer into a Lufthansa flight at­ten­dant. Their ro­mance pro­vides an oc­ca­sion for Hal­fon to re­flect on his feel­ings about be­ing Jew­ish, a sub­ject that reap­pears, in the back­ground or fore­ground, of all three nov­els. In the Scot­tish bar, Tamara and her friend Yael are sur­prised when Hal­fon shows off his lim­ited He­brew:

I re­ally re­mem­bered only three or four words and a ran­dom prayer or two and maybe how to count to ten. Fif­teen, if I re­ally tried. I live in the cap­i­tal, I told her in Span­ish, to show that I wasn’t an Amer­i­can, and she ad­mit­ted that she was con­fused be­cause she hadn’t imag­ined there were any Jew­ish Gu­atemalans. I’m not Jew­ish any more, I said, smil­ing at her, I re­tired. What do you mean you’re not? That’s im­pos­si­ble, she yelled in that way Is­raelis have of yelling.

Hal­fon says some­thing sim­i­lar to a mur­der­ously na­tion­al­is­tic Is­raeli cab driver:

Sud­denly he shouted in ac­cept­able English, ask­ing where I was from. Gu­atemala, I told him. I don’t know if he didn’t hear or didn’t un­der­stand or didn’t care. But Jew­ish? he shouted, al­most in­so­lently. I smiled and said: Some­times. What do you mean, some­times? his eyes squint­ing, his ques­tion abu­sive, his voice abra­sive and ob­structed, as though he were talk­ing with a mouth­ful of grapes.

Hal­fon is in Tel Aviv, at the mercy of the cab driver, be­cause his sis­ter has de­cided to marry into an ul­tra­Ortho­dox com­mu­nity: an­other chance for Hal­fon to con­sider what it means to be “some­times” Jew­ish—a re­tired Jew. At the Wail­ing Wall, he has two dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions that de­fine a par­tic­u­lar strain of re­li­gious am­biva­lence. On his first ap­proach to the wall, “I reached out in­con­spic­u­ously, cau­tiously, as though I were do­ing some­thing for­bid­den, and I touched it. I wanted to feel some­thing, any­thing. All I felt was stone.” But as he’s leav­ing, an im­pul­sive ges­ture sug­gests that his re­sponse was less neu­tral than he’d thought:

I was about to leave the Wail­ing Wall, when I saw on the ground, un­der my foot, a dirty white slip of folded pa­per. I crouched down, picked it up, brushed it off, and un­folded it. It was in He­brew. It was a sin­gle sen­tence, short, black, writ­ten in He­brew let­ters. I rec­og­nized two or three. I re­mem­bered how point­less my He­brew classes had been as a boy—just me­moriz­ing the sounds of vow­els and con­so­nants—be­fore I turned thir­teen. It oc­curred to me that it was prob­a­bly some­one’s prayer, and that it had also prob­a­bly fallen from a crack in the wall. I folded it back up. And I don’t know why, but mov­ing quickly, al­most flee­ing, al­most run­ning away from some­thing or some­one, I slipped it into my pants pocket.

The epi­graph to Monastery (“A cage went in search of a bird”) comes from Kafka, and at mo­ments one senses Kafka’s ghost, along with Bo­laño’s, lin­ger­ing in the shad­ows. The well-known quote from Kafka—“What have I in com­mon with Jews? I have hardly any­thing in com­mon with my­self and should stand very qui­etly in a cor­ner, con­tent that I can breathe”—may cross the reader’s mind. Though Hal­fon’s nar­ra­tor does lit­tle grate­ful breath­ing in cor­ners—he’s too busy trav­el­ing— there is some­thing Kafkaesque in his hes­i­ta­tion about feel­ing or declar­ing that he is Jew­ish, a ret­i­cence that seems more about the im­pos­si­bil­ity of be­long­ing than the im­prob­a­bil­ity of be­lief. Gu­atemalan, Jew­ish, Le­banese, Pol­ish, Amer­i­can—the nar­ra­tor is a com­pos­ite of iden­ti­ties; he comes from a range of places and doesn’t quite be­long any­where. A run­ning joke (or sort of a joke) in the nov­els is that he keeps meet­ing peo­ple who can’t pro­nounce his name. The stu­dent poet gives it a pe­cu­liar stress. The di­rec­tor of the Ital­ian Holo­caust remembrance event in­tro­duces him as Sig­nor Hoff­man; later that day, Hal­fon learns that the ac­tor Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man has just died in New York. This in­for­ma­tion in­spires a feat of lit­er­ary ac­ro­bat­ics, in which Hal­fon’s imag­i­na­tion ranges rather dra­mat­i­cally from the fac­tual and spe­cific to the im­prob­a­ble and ab­stract:

Hoff­man, Panebianco had called me, while Hoff­man died. As though it were more than a slip, more than a co­in­ci­dence. As though in dy­ing he had lib­er­ated his name to float freely around the world, for any­one else in the world to be able to catch it in the air, and say it, and em­body it. As though the names of dead artists were but­ter­flies. As though this was what al­ways hap­pened to men who, in their lives and in their art, gave voice to ev­ery­man, to all men. As though all of us men, at that ex­act mo­ment, were named Hoff­man.

What’s most sur­pris­ing is that these books, which take on such dark sub­jects, are so en­joy­able to read. I sup­pose it’s be­cause they’re of­ten funny, and very well trans­lated. Or per­haps it’s be­cause Hal­fon (the nar­ra­tor and the writer) is at once so ru­mi­na­tive and metic­u­lously ob­ser­vant. Hal­fon en­joys telling sto­ries, and does so in a tone that can shift, within a few para­graphs, from ca­su­ally charm­ing to ele­giac. Or per­haps the rea­son these books stay with us is that they sug­gest that nov­els, like life, don’t re­ally have end­ings, or points. At the end of one chap­ter, Hal­fon com­pares writ­ing to try­ing to re­mem­ber some­thing said in a dream: “As we write, we know that there is some­thing very im­por­tant to be said about re­al­ity, that we have this some­thing within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn’t for­get it. But al­ways, with­out fail, we do.” Like con­scious­ness, lit­er­a­ture keeps track­ing back to what can’t be for­got­ten, to the im­ages that writ­ers can’t get out of their minds: tat­tooed num­bers on an old man’s arm, an ab­surd pink over­coat, an enor­mous red macaw.

Ed­uardo Hal­fon, Guadala­jara, Mex­ico, 2008; pho­to­graph by Vasco Szine­tar

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