TOP 100 REVIEWERon 25 July 2014
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.