The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon
Bellevue Literary Press 2012
The line between fiction and nonfiction is strangely, sometimes frustratingly, blurred in Eduardo Halfon’s newest book, The Polish Boxer. The novel begins in a Guatemalan college classroom with a narrator also named Eduardo Halfon. This presumably fictionalized characterization of the author is the narrator for the globe spanning length of the collection, jumping from the Guatemalan countryside to a Serbian brothel. While the book’s prose doesn’t always support its intriguing concept, these delicately linked stories defy classification and offer a unique medium where personal writing need not be factual.
The structure of Halfon’s book is puzzling. It is broken up into individual stories, and while most are independent, a fictionalized Halfon narrates them all. The search for heritage is a repeated trope, both within Halfon’s family history and with a pianist/acquaintance, Milan Rakic, in search of his own Gypsy heritage. These two arcs extend across the collection, and are the strongest threads that create a cohesive bond among the stories. In this regard, the eponymous story is the collection’s centerpiece. In this elegant tale, the narrator finally hears the story of his grandfather’s experience in Auschwitz. It’s reserved and simple, matching the halting pace and clear awkwardness of their conversation. The connection between the two characters, bolstered through whisky, is startling in both its intimacy and its reserve. Just like the collection as a whole, the biggest questions posed are left unanswered.
The blurring of what is true versus what is fictionalized is both clear and nuanced. The book is peppered with clues and red herrings for those attempting to parse fact from fiction, starting from the introductory quote from Henry Miller: “I have moved the typewriter into the next room where I can see myself in the mirror as I write.” The narrator in The Polish Boxer is a reflection, perhaps a distortion, of the author’s true self. Both are Guatemalan professors, and both have roots in Judaism. This twilight gives his book a journalistic honesty while evading direct truthfulness. This duality comes to a head in the penultimate story, “A Lecture at Póvoa,” which chronicles Halfon’s attempt to write a lecture on how “literature tears through reality.” Applying to the collection as a whole, the fictionalized Halfon and his experiences transcend reality to make an extremely intimate and introspective book.
While the format of Halfon’s book is clearly complex, the narration itself is often bland and monotonous. Despite following the Halfon through several transformative journeys, he seems to stagnate, embodying the same skeptical, cigarette-smoking professor in every story. More, Halfon overemphasizes his descriptions through staccato repetition. When walking through a mysterious building in Sarajevo:
I sighed and thought I heard the echo of my own sigh. Then I thought I heard the scuttling of a rat. Then I thought I heard a shout. Then I thought I heard a bit of music hidden in some distant hissing. But no.
Later down the page:
I had gone beyond language. Beyond any rational concept. Beyond myself. Beyond any understanding of what was happening. Beyond any god or doctrine or gospel or borderline between one thing and another. Just beyond.
These descriptions, unsurprisingly, quickly wear the reader thin. In lighter stories such as “Twaining” and longer stories such as “Pirouette,” the drab writing can be difficult to plow through. It is when Halfon focuses on other characters (his grandfather, the Gypsy pianist, an Israeli he meets at a bar) that the prose feels lively and engaging.
Despite the often-tedious narration, The Polish Boxer remains a fascinating read. While its format and structure may ultimately be stronger than the actual execution, both individual satisfying stories and an overarching connectivity drive the collection forward. While Halfon has published several books in Spanish, The Polish Boxer is his first novel to be translated to English, and it demonstrates his unique, if challenging, new voice. Halfon is pushing the boundaries of fiction, displaying not only the writer’s soul, but also the twisting process of translating life into literature.