This is a difficult book to describe: it is itinerant, fragmented, non-linear, essentially plotless, yet maintains some kind of unity through the narrative voice of Eduardo. That Halfon names his book's narrator after himself reminds us of `Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes', and gestures towards Halfon's literary and intellectual allegiances.
At heart, this is a book suffused with music and texts: gypsy music, Liszt, the rather wonderful piano recital where the pianist refuses to stick to a programme; the texts that Halfon is teaching in his literature seminar, the postcards written to him by a Serbian musician, the number tattooed on the forearm of Halfon's Polish-Jewish grandfather.
Combining images of journeying with meditations on the links between stories, story-telling and identity, this is a diffuse book, almost poetic in mode.
So if you're looking for a book with a straightforward plotline and a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, then this won't be for you. If you're happy with something less tangible, more fragile and disconnected, then this is a rewarding read with a sense of something desperate and moving at its heart.
The title - "The Polish Boxer" - drew me in - but the promised topic of the boy/man's grandfather was only slight - a bit at the beginning and again at the very unsatisfactory end.
In the past I read a good deal of South American Magical Realism but got tired of it and I am afraid this does not match up to any of the greats such as Isabel Allende ...
This is a translation from the original Spanish - the language in places is very weird.
The "plot" for want of a better word takes place mainly in Guatemala, America & Serbia - unconnected happenings occur - some very bizarre.
There are lecturers, students, farmers, gipsies, musicians, postcards, soldiers, Serbians & Jews, and some mention of a Polish Boxer.
I struggled to the end to write a review but overall it was not for me.
Firstly, congratulations to Pushkin Press for publishing this challenging book by an author unknown to the English speaking world [at the end of the book their many other translated books are listed]. Rather strangely, the translation is ‘by Ollie Block, Thomas Bunstead, Lisa Dillman, Daniel Hahn and Anne McLean’ and I would be interested to know how this team translation was organised.
Eduardo Halfon is a Guatemalan author, now living in Nebraska, who has written ten works of fiction in Spanish. This book was published in 2012 and is the author’s first book to appear in English [albeit Americanised]. There was not a little in Halfon’s writing that reminded me of Aleksandar Hemon and Roberto Bolaña. Like these authors, Halfon is not an easy author to follow but it is worth the effort.
In the course of this novel, Halfon describes very different locations and peoples – notably from Guatemala, the US [an academic conference on Mark Twain in Raleigh, North Carolina] and Serbia. He is perceptive in his consideration of Romas/Gypsies, a community on the outmost edges of society that rarely feature in novels. However, he is less able to knit a novella out of a series of linked short stories. There is much discussion about jazz and Theolonius Monk, in particular, and perhaps the book’s fragmentary spontaneity represents an homage to this form of improvisation? Certainly much of the novel is set in dark, smoky bars and clubs, and from time to time the book disappears in a similar murk.
The narrator, who may or may not be Halfon, describes his friends, his relationships and, especially, his grandfather, Oitze, who spent time in concentration camps, first Sachsenhausen and, later in Auschwitz ‘The claustrophobic image of the dark, damp, crowded cell stuffed with whispers.’
In the opening chapters the narrator describes his relationship with mainly indifferent students that he is trying to teach English literature. It then moves on to focus on those few students who respond to the narrator’s rather provocative teaching style. These early chapters teeter on the edge of patronisation but this disappears when the novella moves on to consider his grandfather; his girlfriend, Lia, a medical scientist who visualises her own orgasms; Milan Rakić, a concert pianist who disappears in search of gypsy music but continues to send the narrator postcards from around the world, and the narrator’s journeys around Serbia to seek out Milan’s family in post-Communist Serbia.
The Polish boxer of the title, who may or may not be a figment of his grandfather’s imagination, appears to have been responsible for his survival in Auschwitz. However, the author and/or narrator, rejects his Jewish heritage to the disbelief of Israeli students that he meets.
The author repeatedly returns to the tattoo on his grandfather’s forearm, the ‘five mysterious green digits that, much more than his forearm, seemed to me to be tattooed on some part of his soul.’ In his boyhood, the narrator was told the tattoo was there so his grandfather could remember his phone number. Unsurprisingly, the grandfather does not speak about his wartime experiences until, in a memorable scene, he unburdens himself to the narrator who ‘thought about the five digits, green, faded, already dying on my grandfather’s forearm beneath that thick maroon-and-black quilt. I thought about Auschwitz, I thought about tattoos, about numbers, about sketches, about temples, about sunsets.’
The dangers lurking in the dark streets of Serbian villages are very effectively portrayed ‘I could make out six or seven men, all with cropped hair, black boots, thick chains and leather jackets. They fell quiet as they watched me walk up the street. When I was closer to them, I looked up so that I could prove my passivity with a smile, and I noticed that one of them had a green and maybe black swastika tattooed on his neck. I felt sick. I quickened my pace.’ Throughout, Halfon is very good at describing space but his treatment of passing time is poor, he simply begins another chapter.
The weakest character was Lia, an almost a two-dimensional nymphomaniac, and her storyline was never clarified. There is no attempt to pull together the different stories and the reader is left thinking about the narrator’s opinions that ‘There’s always more than one truth to everything.’ Whilst this book is not outstanding, I look forward to reading future books, either in translation [hopefully by an individual rather than a group] or in the author’s own English. 8/10.
Recently in the fiction forum a thread has been started to discuss `Gems from small publishers', the `'Polish Boxer certainly fits the bill. The `Polish Boxer' is a difficult book to describe. It is a novel structured as short stories it is fiction but reads like a memoir as Eduardo Halfon uses his own name for the protagonist. The first story `Distant' involves Halfon as teacher, trying to teach his students how to read short stories, the fact that there are always two stories, the one on the surface and the other that you can discover by reading between the lines. It is difficult not to read `The Polish Boxer' in that way, Halfon the author is encouraging the reader to look deeper into his novel and even think about the very nature of the novel in the 21st century.
`The Polish Boxer' blurs the distinction between fact and fiction, the character Halfon is told a story by his grandfather to explain the numbers tattooed on his arm, years later he is told another story involving the eponymous Polish Boxer, which he claims to be the truth, but is it? This book is published as fiction yet if it had been published as a memoir I would have had no difficulty believing it to be so. It also made me question the very nature of memoirs, many are published nowadays by people talking about their abusive childhoods for example, and they are read as fact. A family member may then appear who denies that any of it happened and tells their story, who are we to believe? Maybe both are versions of the truth simply seen through different eyes.
It is a far more accessible book than many of the contemporary Latin American authors although it is best to devote a bit of time to it so that you can read an entire section/chapter/story in one sitting. It works well on the surface and is a compelling story but it is what lies beneath this that I found most intriguing and has ensured its place on my ;to read again' pile.
Generally I am not a fan of Latin American fiction, but every now and again I attempt to read something from this field in the hope that I will begin to like and enjoy it. 'The Polish Boxer' is a relatively short book which is split up into short-story style chapters and is essentially an easy read. The prose is exquisite, the story set in and around Belgrade made me want to do nothing better than sit in a bohemian Serbian cafe, and the main theme flowing through the tales is one of trying to find things which are seemingly lost, while the underlying themes are what can you trust and is fiction anymore truthful than fact (exemplified by the two mentions of the polish boxer). Is the truth better than a good story or vice versa.
Overall this would serve as a good introduction to Latin American fiction, which consistently uses meta style narratives and magic realism, but these styles are not overdone in this novel.
"The Polish Boxer" is a fragmented novel describing various episodes in the life of its narrator, a man who shares the name and biography of the book's author. Eduardo Halfon is a lecturer in Guatamala haunted by his Polish grandfather's survival of Auschwitz, as well as a mysterious acquaintance, a Serbian pianist torn between the constraints of classical music and the improvisational Gypsy music of his father.
Halfon is not the most endearing of narrators and sometimes his meditations on subjects such as truth and his grandfather's experience tended to banality. The characterization of the novel's women, most of whom wanted to sleep with the narrator, also felt tiredly familiar. I was compelled, however, to keep reading and I did enjoy the way that Halfon vividly evokes the various places visited by the narrator.
The Polish Boxer is narrated by Eduardo Halfon - a writer who has a lot in common with the real author of the same name. Both are Jewish, engineers from Nebraska, teaching at university in Guatemala. Whether or not they are actually the same person remains open throughout the story... or rather, stories: there are ten of them here, blended together into one long tale that, among other things, tells the story of Halfon's granddad, a former POW who owed his survival to the eponymous Polish boxer he met in a concentration camp... all of which makes this book sound a lot more straight-ahead than it actually is. This is a stimulating and inspiring read, unlike much else that I've read lately, but it's far from linear and not recommended to anybody wishing a straightforward plotline.