Book of the month: Eduardo Halfon

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It’s been a difficult week here in the UK and for many of us there is great uncertainty about the future. One thing I am sure of, however, is that – now more than ever – we English speakers must read and listen to the stories of people who use other languages. From what I have learnt over more than four years of global literary exploration, this is one of the surest and best ways to further our understanding and appreciation of the way those in other places see the world.

Translation gives us the gift of looking through the eyes of all humanity. By borrowing others’ perspectives, in the special way that stories allow us to do, we enlarge and enrich our seeing. We will need that vision more profoundly than ever in the challenging months ahead.

With that in mind, it’s my pleasure to share a wonderful novel from a nation that, to date, has had almost none of its literature translated into English. Back in 2012, when I was deep in my quest to read a book from every country in the world in a year, the pickings from Guatemala were slim. I went with The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge), a book first published in Mexico in 1946. At the time, it was the only novel from the nation that I could find in English translation.

So you can imagine my delight when Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer came onto my radar. Published in the final months of my quest, this translation of a slim collection of interlinked short stories put together by a team of five translators – Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean – brings an exciting Central American voice into the Anglophone arena.

The narratives follow Eduardo Halfon, a literature professor who shares his author’s name and is spurred into action when a promising student in his class leaves the university without explanation. Thereafter, we follow Halfon through a series of quests, experiences and discoveries – to a remote village, to an academic conference on Mark Twain, to a music festival and in search of a concert pianist-turned-gypsy-musician in Belgrade. Disparate though they are, the narratives circle around the narrator’s memory of his grandfather’s account of meeting a Polish boxer in Auschwitz and how that fleeting encounter saved his life.

As you might expect from a novel in which the protagonist shares the author’s name and is a literature professor, there is quite a bit of play with the idea of what a story is or isn’t in the book. We read numerous pronouncements on the art of storytelling – ‘that the visible narrative always hides a secret tale’; ‘that literature is a deceit in which he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive’; that ‘the only way to tell a story is to stutter it eloquently’. In another writer’s hands this self-conscious and occasionally defensive kind of discussion might be irritating – and, indeed, it does occasionally lean that way – but Halfon’s wry, self-deprecating manner saves it, making it largely thought-provoking and playful instead.

Coupled with this are some fabulous descriptions and observations. For my money, the evocation of rural Guatemala is hard to beat. Raw beauty drips from the pages in which Halfon travels into the countryside in search of his erstwhile student to a place where the term for poetry in the local language, Cakchikel, means ‘braid of words’. But it is the title story of the Polish boxer, when at last it comes, that takes the prize. In its stark force and spare, telling details, this tale recalls Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, perhaps the most powerful piece of literature dealing with the Holocaust that I have read.

The narratological fencing and playfulness extend to the linguistic level. Dialogue bleeds into description with nothing to separate the two, so that it is as though we are looking out at the world from the inside of Halfon’s mind. At times, the meandering of the narrative makes us question the solidity of the ‘I’ narrating it – are we still with Halfon or has someone else crept in and taken over under the cover of a turning page? And although I can’t read the original to compare, the virtuosity of the translators is apparent in the skill with which they judge how much to explain and how much to trust the reader to cope with culturally specific terms: the book never falters while a helpful hand reaches in to push us in the right direction and yet it never trips over its laces either. Instead, it runs over unfamiliar terrain at an elegant, even pace.

That’s not to say that the novel is perfect. A hackneyed turn of phrase creeps in here and there, and the fragmentation and meandering will be too much for some readers. (*Spoiler alert* There’s a lot that never gets resolved and that is kind of the point.)

But if you are able to able to trust it, this book will sweep you up and bear you away through a host of specific times and places towards a universal vision of the things that make us who we are. Maybe, in the final analysis, that is what a story is really meant to do.

The Polish Boxer (El boxeador polaco) by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean (Pushkin Press, 2012)

Picture: Santiago – Lago de Atitlan – Guatemala-81 by Christopher William Adach on Flickr.com.

12 responses

  1. Sounds intriguing! I have a high tolerance for meandering, unresolved narratives, but the involvement of so many top flight translators could make for a unique opportunity for the reader to compare/contrast. Sounds perfect for Spanish lit month (July) too. Thanks!

  2. I’m going to reblog this, both for the introduction about the power of storytelling in creating understanding between people; for the Polish connection since I am now embedded in my daughter’s Polsih family; and because you write a magnificent review. Thank you on all three fronts.

  3. Reblogged this on 12monthsinwarsaw and commented:
    I don’t often reblog, but I’m going to reblog this, both for the introduction about the power of storytelling in creating understanding between people after the post brexit attacks on Poles (but not only Poles); for the Polish connection since I am now embedded in my daughter’s Polsih family; and because It is a magnificent review.

  4. Great, thanks On 28 Jun 2016 7:26 PM, “A year of reading the world” wrote:

    > londonchoirgirl posted: ” It’s been a difficult week here in the UK and > for many of us there is great uncertainty about the future. One thing I am > sure of, however, is that – now more than ever – we English speakers must > read and listen to the stories of people who use other l” >

  5. I have a Polish Dad and numerous Polish cousins living and working in this country and I have been sorely embarrassed for them during recent events. Thank you for your recommendation. I will certainly seek it out. 🙂

  6. Interesting review! I read The Polish Boxer some time ago, and my impression was a bit mixed. Halfon is for sure a very talented author and there are wonderful descriptions; the first chapter would be a perfect stand-alone story for example. As a novel, I found it unfortunately a bit messed up; characters that are important are dropped suddenly, never to return again, the story of the Polish boxer which is supposed to be the central one, is told in a rather superficial way, and the three main story lines seem somehow not to fit organically. The problem of the book is for me that it is not clear if it is a novel or a collection of (in a vague way) connected stories. As a novel it didn’t work for me but I got the impression that it will be worth to check out Halfon’s future books (including the novel about The Polish Boxer he is allegedly working on).
    My review: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=1693

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