Monastery is Eduardo Halfon‘s second novel (after The Polish Boxer, also from Bellevue Literary Press) about Eduardo Halfon. Yes, the author and his hero share a name. In interviews at the time The Polish Boxer came out, Halfon said “To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction.”
My library hosted Thatcher Freund last night for a talk entitled, “Why Stories Matter.” He was addressing life stories, and he noted two things that resonated with me as I finished Monastery at lunch today. First, that memoirs are about the moments in our lives as we remember them. And second that the details of a story are what the person writing/telling it went through, but the truth of the story is what everyone went through. Halfon’s work is a tremendous example of that.
Halfon’s narrator grew up in a Jewish expat family of Polish and Lebanese origins in Guatemala and in Monastery he relates his travels. He visits his sister’s fiancee’s ultra Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, his grandfather’s boyhood neighborhood in Warsaw, the Dead Sea, a coffee cooperative in Guatemala and a border town near Belize, a jazz salon in the Paul Robeson Residence in New York, a former U-boat base on the French coast.
But whether we have experienced these things ourselves is irrelevant because the novel — which like The Polish Boxer reads like linked stories — is not really about the details, as interesting and enticing as those are. The novel is about family and love and confusion, about being together and alone, about identity and all that entails. It’s about having faith in who we are and in who we might be and even in who we (or others) might say we are. It’s about losing that faith or rediscovering it or worrying we’ll never have it. And all of us have experienced those things to some degree.
Halfon’s writing is rich. You may experience moments of dislocation or unease as you try to navigate the threads between chapters, which seem tenuous when you’re in the midst of them but grow stronger. But you’ll probably find yourself forgiving this because the book is beautiful and of course, True.
For example, the reader isn’t sure what’s going on when Eduardo hesitates outside the jazz salon, founded as an outlet for a grieving mother. He was looking for the place, so why doesn’t he just go in? He turns to the woman who helped him find his way, who is still in the elevator:
“The sound of the piano stopped, then silence, and gentle applause. She smiled at me with just her eyes. I held out my hand, a bit hurried and proud, perhaps wishing to defer the inevitable for a while longer. It took her a moment to understand, but then she also held out hers. And we stayed like that for a couple of seconds, maybe not even that, each of us on separate sides of the doors.”
Yes. Exactly. I’ve never been there in that moment but I’ve been there, in that moment.