The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon (translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead & Anne McLean)

Eduardo Halfon is an exciting new Guatemalan author.  Chosen as one of the best young Latin American writers at the Hay Festival of Bogotá in 2009, he’s also received a José María de Pereda Prize for the Short Novel and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011.  He’s published 9 novels, The Polish Boxer is the first to be translated into English.

I believe The Polish Boxer is as much a novel as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  Which is my complicated way of saying it is a book of short stories.  One clue is the way Halfon repeats the same bits of information in multiple stories.  As if he wasn’t expecting them to be collected in one place when he wrote them.  The narrator, – a professor, author and traveler named Eduardo Halfon – is the unifying factor.  Sound familiar?  And yes, you can argue that because the themes and characters carry through multiple stories (or, if you prefer, chapters) The Polish Boxer is a novel.  But each of these chapters is a self-contained unit.

Why am I so fixated on whether this is a collection of short stories versus a novel?  Maybe because writing a short story collection is difficult and I want to give credit where credit is due.  Or maybe it’s because any one of the stories in The Polish Boxer is easily as good as what’s been published in the fiction section of The New Yorker.

The title story is about Halfon’s grandfather.  A Polish concentration camp survivor who tells his young grandson that the numbers tattooed on his forearm are a phone number.  Halfon explains, “In the 1970’s, telephone numbers in Guatemala were five digits long.”  The truth was his grandfather received the numbers at Auschwitz and it was a Polish boxer who saved his life.  The truth, though, is a complicated thing.  And Halfon discovers that the true story may have been simpler and more complicated than the one his grandfather told him.

These stories are populated by men and women  intent on pulling something more from life.  My favorites feature Milan, a troubled Serbian classical pianist with gypsy blood.  Halfon and his girlfriend Lía meet Milan at a music festival in Antigua.  They become friends – Milan affectionately calls Halfon “Eduardito”.  In the months that follow he sends Eduardito cryptic postcards from all over the world in an attempt to share his own, personal, story.

I got a postcard of the Golden Gate Bridge, sent from San Francisco.  Milan wrote:  Last night, as I was playing in a beautiful auditorium, everything began to tremble.  Some people stood.  Others left.  And I kept playing Stravinsky as if nothing much were happening.  Nothing much was happening.  In Romany, Eduardito, earthquake is I phuv kheldias, which means the earth danced.

These are beautiful stories, but we’ve all read beautiful stories before.  What dazzles me about Halfon is his ability to capture people – men and women – in flux.  The action continues even after the narrative ends.  Often the last sentence comes too suddenly, characters are cut off mid-motion, mid-thought.  Things are left unexplained, unfinished, inferring that there are still stories to tell – forever expanding out like the root system of a tree.  It makes me wonder.  What’s in those other 8 books?

Among the postcards Milan sends Eduardito is one about Black Ellen: a gypsy storyteller. She would shout out to the crowd and if they didn’t shout back the answer she wanted she would leave.  Shake her skirts out and go, story unfinished.  “Sounds like Scheherazade, said Lía, in bra and panties, painting her toenails cherry red.”  And she’s right.  About Black Ellen and about Eduardo Halfon.

Hopefully now they’ve finally begun appearing in English, Halfon’s stories will continue to do so… with only minimal interruptions.

Publisher:  Bellevue Literary Press, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 934137 53 6

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3 thoughts on “The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon (translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead & Anne McLean)

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your whole review. Although.. I do kind of wish that the penultimate essay had not been included. It’s not that I mind finding out that Halfon’s grandfather may not have [spoilers redacted], but seeing the peek behind how Halfon acquired the story left me a little cold. Like a magician showing how the tricks work, but you’re not expecting him to tell you. It would have made a better afterward, maybe.

    But, I loved Eduardito and Lia and Milan. I also hope that they translate more of his work, pronto.

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    1. The last essay didn’t bother me, in that I felt that it fit really well into the over-riding theme of the collection. The idea that all these people/characters are carrying stories with them and trying to share them in different ways. Lia with her drawings, Milan with his music and postcards, the grandfather, and even Eduardo who tells his own story through the stories of those close to him.

      I liked the way Eduardo tells us the first story his grandfather’s told him about the numbers on his arm, and then collects another story (the ‘true’ story) and subsequently is upset at hearing his grandfather tell yet another version of that same story. It’s a wonderful comment on the shifting nature of truth in storytelling. Even when the stories are true ones.

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      1. Yes ^_^ I mean, I appreciated it.. I just wasn’t expecting it, it chilled me down after the heat of the rest of the book, and then I was kind of cold reading the very last essay and I wanted to be more emotional.

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