Posts Tagged ‘The Polish Boxer’

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.


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I picked up The Polish Boxer expecting excellent literary fiction — it’s published by Bellevue Literary Press. What I got was that and much more; a semi-autobiographical tale of a Guatemalan Jew, a trip around the world, insight into Balkan cultural fragmentation, jazz and the nature of improvisation, Gypsy music and culture particularly in Belgrade, the meaning of fiction and its place in reality, the preservation of Holocaust stories,the human psyche’s adaptation of beliefs and mythology/storytelling as a way to reconcile daily life with universal truths . . . . I could go on, but it would be better if you would just read this genre-bending novel for yourself.

In publicity materials and interviews, Eduardo Halfon has described the book as semi-autobiographical, and he’s said, “To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction.”  The book felt to me like a novel-in-stories, especially in the early chapters, which follow the main character (also called Eduardo) from his literature classes at a Guatelmalan university to literary conferences in North Carolina and Portugal to the streets of Belgrade, where he is looking for a half-Serbian, half-Roma pianist he met at an arts festival in Guatemala.

We meet his lover, Lia, his musician friend Milan, and an eminent Twain scholar who recognizes Eduardo’s b.s. at a conference and chooses to tell jokes when it is his turn to speak. We also meet Eduardo’s grandfather, Leon. Leon is an Auschwitz survivor whose story of a fellow Pole, a boxer, coaching him to survive his trial becomes truth to Eduardo, until he reads another version of the story in a newspaper interview Leon gives shortly before his death. In the new version, there is no Polish boxer; Leon survives by other means.

This revelation causes Eduardo to say, in his speech at a conference in Portugal on how “Literature Tears Through Reality,” “Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing.” He recounts the ending of an Ingmar Bergman film, Shame, and explains, “That is exactly what literature is like. As we write we know there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn’t forget it. But always, without fail, we do.”

I’ve only just finished The Polish Boxer so I’m not sure I’ve fully processed what it’s said to me about reality. But it’s a book full of sex, smoking and drinking, language, music, friendship, culture and identity. It’s about loss — the kind you feel without really understanding what it is that’s missing, only knowing it’s not there.

It’s about whether or not a Gypsy pirouetting means anything, and what it means, and what meaning means. It’s about the ways people in a Belgrade slum and a Guatemalan village and a Polish neighborhood and Brooklyn and a million other places live and love and get by the same as you and I. It’s about love, not just between lovers, but love of family and love of place, love of tribe (by birth or by art), love of humanity and the way love is the humanity between us, even at times when hate is the currency of power.

It’s about the need to write, to tell what urgently needs to be told, or to sing it or play it. It’s about poetry, which in the Mayan language Cakchikel  is “a braid of words . . . an embroidered blouse of words.”  That’s it too: The Polish Boxer is an embroidered blouse of words. And a tattoo on on old man’s arm,of his number at Auschwitz, the one he told his grand-kids was a phone number. And it’s the patterns we fall into, in loving and judging each other. In defining the world around us. In making reality and writing it into our consciousness.

Confused? Don’t be. I can’t do this book justice. Get yourself to your local bookstore or your library and ask for Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer. Get comfortable — the most frustrating thing about reading this book was that I didn’t have a good long stretch to read it in one sitting. Pour yourself a drink. Put on some music — jazz, gypsy, or whatever inspires your heart to longing. And enjoy this magical, unreal trip through reality.


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