Eduardo Halfon and The Polish Boxer
Des Barry interviews Eduardo Halfon.
I approach Eduardo Halfon to do an interview or article on him on the morning of the third day of his visit to the second annual Fiction Fiesta organised by Richard Gwyn of Cardiff University. Eduardo and I spend quite a lot of time in conversation over the weekend about his book The Polish Boxer. The fictional protagonist of The Polish Boxer is also called Eduardo Halfon. It’s hard to distinguish where fact ends and where fiction begins in the stories: whether the book is a collection of stories or a novel.
‘So you’ll intersperse what we talked about with observations about the book?’ Halfon says at our final dinner.
‘Yeah. I’ve taken lots of notes over the last few days.’
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘You have my permission to write anything you like, including how you see the facts, including facts that aren’t facts.’
The meeting. I emerge from the stairwell onto the roof of Coffee a Go Go and immediately I recognize Halfon from the photograph on the Fiction Fiesta website. Hard not to recognize him with his dark beard, glasses and shaved head. This rooftop party is the opening event of a dialogue among writers from Wales and Latin America and their translators. Halfon stands next to Tristan Hughes, a lanky, big-boned Welsh-Canadian novelist and academic. Tristan is six foot six and has a deep Welsh baritone.
‘This is Ed.’
I shake hands with Halfon. He is slight, about five foot ten, in a dark coat that hangs over a pale jacket. Behind him, sunrays pierce the evening clouds and transfix the springtime city, light up the lead dome of the National Museum, the clock tower of City Hall, and the crenellated walls of Cardiff Castle. From this height, and in this light, the city behind him is shimmering.
Halfon makes full eye contact, which reminds me of something that I miss since leaving New York – all those years back when I did a masters degree at Columbia – the openness of people from the Americas. Or is this a projection of mine? Halfon has written nine books in Spanish and his first translation into English, The Polish Boxer, has recently been published by Bellevue Literary Press in the United States and by Pushkin Press in the U.K.
Hughes, Halfon and I begin what, at first, seems to be a banal conversation about tobacco: the poetic sound of the name Golden Virginia, when it may be neither golden nor Virginia, then about the roughness of Old Holborn and Drum. But tobacco plays an important part in the life of Eduardo Halfon the protagonist of Eduardo Halfon’s book The Polish Boxer, who is not the author Eduardo Halfon but a kind of alter ego for the man standing before me. The Eduardo Halfon of The Polish Boxer smokes all the time. Many of the scenes in the book are wreathed in smoke. But the Eduardo Halfon in front of me on this rooftop doesn’t seem to smoke at all. The Eduardo Halfon of The Polish Boxer is a professor of comparative literature in Guatemala, and the Eduardo Halfon in front of me has been a professor of comparative literature in Guatemala.
‘So how much are you like the Eduardo Halfon in The Polish Boxer?’
‘We’re both alike and not alike. He is a kind of projection of me: sometimes he’s much better than me and sometimes he’s much worse. He can be very courageous. I’m quite cowardly.’
‘He also smokes a lot and you don’t.’
‘I smoke sometimes.’
Halfon asks Hughes to make him a cigarette. He lights the roll-up but it soon goes out in the wind. Maybe he used to smoke.
‘You have an American accent,’ I say to Halfon.
‘Well I was born in Guatemala but I lived in the United States from the age of ten until my early twenties. And I live in Nebraska now.’
His accent to me has a New York flavour. Maybe that’s because of the Spanish inflections.
For a moment we are joined by Sioned Rowlands, a translator.
‘I read that in Guatemala yesterday Efrain Ríos Montt was convicted for what happened during the dictatorship, in the early 1980s’ she says.
‘Yes, he was found guilty of genocide, but already there’s an appeal with teams of lawyers to try to get him off’ Halfon says. ‘One thing that is important is that the military killings of that time period are finally and officially being recognized as genocide. That is, the majority of the killings were carried out with the intent to exterminate the indigenous population. The country’s ruling oligarchy and the extreme right wing don’t want the killings to be called genocide. They want the killings to be seen as part of a political conflict between the military and the guerillas. Casualties of war, they say. But if you go into an indigenous village and assassinate all the men, women and children of a particular ethnicity, that’s genocide, no?’
A low rumble over the rooftop makes us look to the clouds for signs of storm. But other than the wind, the sky is calm.
‘Videla died today,’ I say.
‘Yeah. In prison.’
‘Latin America has a kind of shared history. All of the countries have lived through dictatorships, and military oppression, and interference by the CIA. All of our countries have a deep and tumultuous history with the indigenous peoples.’
‘The first story in the book alludes to that,’ I say.
‘When I taught at the university, a very private university, there was a scholarship for one person a year. And it was usually given to an indigenous student. One per year. So the first story in the book is about one of these kids.’
‘So is this a true story?’
‘True enough’ he smiles.
‘How true is true enough?’ I ask him.
‘It begins with a true situation, let’s say, but from there it dives into the murky waters of fiction.’
‘If it’s fiction, why is the protagonist called Eduardo Halfon?’
‘Perhaps because I want readers to have a visceral experience. I want them to believe what is going on in the story, that all this really happened. So if the author Eduardo Halfon has the same name as the narrator in the story then the reader is lulled into thinking that the events in the story are probably real. In writing them, they all start off as real in some way, and then they go somewhere else, somewhere less real, but just as true. Or perhaps even more so.’
The wind whips up and another thunderous rumble echoes around the rooftops. We search the sky for impending rain. Another roar, and we realise the rumble is coming from the speakers on the roof as the wind batters the microphones. It’s chilly up on the roof. Eduardo goes down the stairs to get a beer. I decide to leave. As I pass him on the stairs, we shake hands.
‘See you tomorrow, right?’ he says.
‘Yeah, see you then.’
His hand is cold.
On the walnut-panelled walls of the council chamber of Cardiff University, gowned and jowly portraits of men in suits, portraits of previous vice chancellors, put the hard stare on the audience of the Fiction Fiesta. It’s unnerving.
‘Think of them as wearing women’s underwear,’ says one of the poets, ‘then they’re easier to bear.’
Halfon is on a panel with Inés Garland, an Argentine novelist, and Richard Gwyn, novelist, poet, translator and essayist. The discussion covers some of the ground we ranged over last night but Richard is focussed particularly on translation.
‘The Polish Boxer was translated by a team of five people’ Eduardo says. ‘It was a complicated process where the drafts of the translations were passed around the team – all of it coordinated by Daniel Hahn for Bellevue Literary Press. The voice of the final version is remarkably consistent. They did a great job. But I don’t think the publisher will do such a thing again, because it is so unorthodox, and because it takes so much organising. It was, however, a great way to come up with this translation.’
‘You did an engineering degree in the United States and you lived there for many years. How did you become a writer?’
‘I went to the United States when I was ten and went back to Guatemala in my early twenties. When I returned to Guatemala, I could barely speak Spanish. I felt totally out of place. Living in the United States, I was seen as a Guatemalan. When I returned to Guatemala I was an outsider there, too. I suppose I’ve always been an outsider. Still am. I never understood Guatemala. I felt completely desubicado. Maybe you could translate that as a sense of profound displacement, of not belonging anywhere. This went on for about five or six years. I guess some people would have gone to see a rabbi or a therapist. I’m very rational so I enrolled in a philosophy course. And if you enroll in a philosophy course in Guatemala, you have to study literature, too. It’s a joint degree. And I immediately fell in love with fiction. I started reading voraciously. I read nonstop for a year, two years. Writing was an afterthought of all that reading. I came to it late, and by accident. I could live without writing, but I don’t think I could live without reading.’
‘Why did you decide to write in Spanish when your English is just as good?’ Richard asks.
‘I don’t remember ever deciding. Spanish is my first language. It’s the language of my childhood. It was the first one in. And so when I started writing, I just started in Spanish. But it was never really a conscious choice.’
‘The Polish Boxer is being translated into German, Portuguese, Italian, but in each country it’s being published in different formats,’ Richard says.
‘This is going to sound Machiavellian. The Polish Boxer is all part of a bigger project that is constantly growing. Stories grow out of other stories. For example, out of the story of the Serbian gypsy pianist called Epistrophy, comes the search in The Pirouette. Originally, in the Spanish version, The Pirouette is a separate novella. But the American and British publishers wanted a bigger book, so The Pirouette became the eighth story, or chapter, of the book The Polish Boxer. The English edition, then, is really an amalgamation of two books. A new novella called Monasterio or Monastery, to be published in Spanish this fall, comes from the characters in the story or chapter of The Polish Boxer called White Smoke. Hence, each piece in the The Polish Boxer, if you will, is like a planet in a constellation, or like a doll in a Russian matryoshka, or like a square in the children’s game of hopscotch. Each country has decided which stories they want, and in what order, and which book-length they prefer. The Brazilian edition of The Polish Boxer, for instance, will include the stories that are in the original Spanish language edition plus three new stories translated into Portuguese. But they are all linked. Everything is linked. Same narrator. Same quest. Same back story of how my grandfather survived Auschwitz thanks to a Polish boxer. Which is, perhaps, one of the unifying threads of the project. For sixty years, my grandfather wouldn’t speak of Auschwitz, of what happened to him there, of how he received his number. And then one day he told me his story with a boxer.’
When the panel discussion ends, the conversation continues under the portraits of the lowering vice-chancellors. Alexis Numismayer, a French translator, says, ‘Nobody speaks of a European literature. Everyone speaks of English literature, or German literature, but we often hear people speaking of Latin American literature as if it is one thing.’
‘In Europe and the United States,’ Eduardo says, ‘there is still this idea that Latin American literature is defined by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the magical realist boom. They are looking for the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but magical realism exists only among a few writers. Throughout Latin America right now, the writing is far harder edged, far grittier, and much harder to classify or unify. There is a history we share, and a language. But as for literature, there isn’t a lot of similarity between one country and another.’
‘The stories in The Polish Boxer seem to be essentially global stories,’ I say. ‘In White Smoke the Jewish Guatemalan Eduard Halfon talks with two Israeli hippy women in a Scottish bar in Antigua; a Serbian gypsy pianist makes his first appearance in Epistrophy, which has a long jazz rap on the music of Thelonius Monk; in Postcards, a series of postcards from the pianist arrive in Guatemala from all over the world, from Honolulu to Wales; in The Pirouette, Halfon goes on a quest among gypsies in Belgrade in the winter.’
‘In Guatemala, people say that I don’t write like a Guatemalan writer,’ Eduardo says. ‘They say that I write like a European writer. I guess I don’t really fit in Guatemala. But I don’t really fit anywhere. I don’t feel at home anywhere. I don’t feel at home in Guatemala, or in the United States, or in Spain. Soy un desubicado.’
Eduardo and I walk from the university down Park Place to Nick Davidson’s Coffee a Go Go to eat lunch. Nick hosted the first Fiction Fiesta last year, and is responsible for the gathering’s name. It captures the real sense of enjoyment in the dialogue among Latin American and European writers and translators. The sun on the city lights up the grey stone of the neo-gothic houses built by the medievalist architect William Burgess for the Marquess of Bute. Blossom drifts off the roadside trees in the warm wind.
‘Narrative and memoir, fiction and nonfiction, intersect in your work,’ I say.
‘In Latin American literature there’s no such genre as nonfiction,’ Eduardo says. ‘That’s a North American thing. How can you have a definition for something solely based on what it is not? It doesn’t make sense. My work is fiction but I’m trying to get at a truth. A few years ago, I was asked to write a column for the opinion pages of a newspaper published in Guatemala and Peru. Once a week, on Wednesdays, this opinion piece would come out – it had a strict word limit of four hundred words – and the only way I could write it was as a short story. It was supposed to deal with some political issue or whatever, but I didn’t want to write a straight opinion piece. I despise opinion pieces. So I decided I’d write each week’s piece as fiction. In one piece I wrote called Mediodía or Midday – which Richard has translated – the main character is a pediatrician who was arrested by the military during the dictatorship and tortured for forty days. His children had gone into hiding because they feared being arrested, or assassinated, or simply made to disappear. He endured this torture and could say nothing because he really didn’t know where his children were hiding. Even if I describe this very short man, even if I don’t name him, everyone in the country knows who I’m writing about. He’s considered to be something of a hero in Guatemala. Or at least he is to me. In this vignette – it’s like a dibujo or a drawing, like a quick sketch – people can understand what’s going on by what isn’t said. In my fiction, whatever its length, whatever its format, I’m always trying to get to some kind of visceral truth. Even if it’s an unspeakable one. Or especially if it’s an unspeakable one. ’
With so many people in the café, lunch takes a long time to arrive.
‘So is the book a collection of stories or a novel?’ I say.
‘What do you think?’ Eduardo says.
‘It reads like a novel to me. Your grandfather’s Polish boxer story turns up in each of the chapters in one way or another.’
‘Yeah, it’s always with me. My grandfather always told me that the number tattooed on his left forearm was his phone number in Guatemala. He had it tattooed there, he said, because he could never remember it. When I was a child all phone numbers in Guatemala were five digits long, so I believed him. The story is about the day he talked to me for the first time about how a Polish boxer helped him to survive Auschwitz. I really don’t know if it’s true or not, but I guess that it doesn’t matter. If well told, if well written, it’s true enough.’
We sit around the table at my house for a final dinner: Richard Gwyn, Eduardo and myself.
‘Will there ever be a final edition of The Polish Boxer?’ Richard says.
‘Sometimes I think writing is like playing,’ Eduardo says. ‘When you are a child, you just play naturally. You jump from one game to another. You jump from one thing to another. Like hopscotch. I’m still playing hopscotch with The Polish Boxer: jumping from one story to another.’
‘The first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was just a slim volume,’ I say, ‘and he kept adding to it throughout his life. Maybe The Polish Boxer is like that.’
‘I keep writing more chapters, more stories, more episodes, and they all fit in at different places in the narrative. New stories grow out of the existing ones. Old stories become new ones. Shorter stories become longer ones. Maybe in thirty years The Polish Boxer will be one huge book. Maybe I’m just writing one huge book. Maybe all of my writing is part of one huge project. Maybe it’ll never end.’
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape; he’s currently finishing up a PhD thesis called The Escape of the Imaginary Author about David Enrique Spellman and the multi-platform novel Far South. His shorter prose has been published in The New Yorker, Granta and in anthologies including Sea Stories and London Noir. His first novel, The Chivalry of Crime, won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. He tweets from @farsouthproject.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 29th, 2013.