Book of the month: Eduardo Halfon


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

Guatemala: divide and rule

‘I think with the President’s mind, therefore I exist.’

Looking down the list of books from the 196 sovereign states I’m trying to read my way round this year, I’m struck by how many of them are by senior government figures. Coming from the UK, the concept of the politician-novelist is not something I’m very familiar with. In fact the last major work of fiction I can think of by a British prime minister (Tony Blair’s A Journey aside) would have to be Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, which came out around 140 years ago.

All the more striking, then, that so many notable 20th century political players elsewhere in the world should have won acclaim for their literary efforts. However, I suspect few of them can have engaged with the question of governance more directly and passionately in fiction than journalist-turned-congressman-diplomat-turned-Nobel-prize-winner Miguel Ángel Asturias.

First released in Mexico in 1946, Asturias’s most famous novel The President portrays the sharp end of life in a totalitarian state. Beginning with a random killing among a group of beggars that spirals into a witch hunt, the narrative reveals how truth, bodies and even life itself are maimed and distorted to suit the needs of the great ‘protector… who watches over us with a father’s love’.

Violence, both real and imagined, pervades the text, which stitches together a series of personal tragedies and outrages as families, friendships, faith and integrity smash against the intransigence and inhumanity of the state and are destroyed. Many of them stand as synecdochic metaphors for the plight of the people – from the lawyer left struggling in the dark to read and make a case against the lengthy false indictment that will cost him his life to the blind beggar woman ‘dreaming that she was covered in flies and suspended from a hook like a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop’.

These moments of extremity are thrown into relief by a series of cruel juxtapositions with festivals and celebrations and even bursts of humour that emphasise the ‘grotesque farce’ in which all the characters are trapped and the cold indifference to the suffering of others that terror breeds.

At the centre of this web of fear sits the shadowy figure of the President. Mentioned in every chapter, he nevertheless has a strangely absent quality, and is far removed from the daily realities of his people (he only appears in person a handful of times). This renders his fickle decisions all the more chilling, engendering the same sense of uncertainty in the reader that causes half the guests at a state ceremony to wet themselves in fright when a bandsman drops his drum.

Asturias’s satire is made rich by his use of language and the extraordinary panoramic descriptions with which he brings his nightmare state to life. Eliot glimmers in some of the linguistic effects – ‘Doors and doors and doors and windows and doors and windows flashed past him’ – and he anticipates Beckett in surreal exchanges such as the haunting chapter ‘Conversation in the Dark’. There are even the early outriders of magical realism in some of his more vivid passages.

The result is a compelling manifesto against the mechanisms that enable tyrants to seize and maintain supreme power and a passionate treatise on the fragile beauty of the human spirit. It is a call to arms in the defence of freedom and independent thought more stirring than any keynote speech. Western politicians may not be writing so much any more, but I hope they are reading this book.

The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge). Publisher (this edition): Waveland Press (1997). First published in Mexico in 1946