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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The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

Any novel can be read straight thru from beginning to end.  But how many novels offer the choice of starting from either the front or the back?  Or tell a reader two stories, from two drastically different perspectives which eventually merge into one?  Open Letter Books calls The Canvas a “mind-bending investigation of memory, identity, truth, and delusion… the publishing event of the year, a novel whose meaning depends on the order in which it is read”.

Jan Wechsler – who in an interview Benjamin Stein described as his alter-ego – is an Orthodox Jewish man who lives in an apartment with his wife and two children in Germany.  One Shabbot (the Saturday sabbath) a suitcase from Israel shows up at his front door. He claims it’s not his, but many things about it show otherwise.  The luggage tag is in his handwriting.  Among the contents is a book, written by Jan Wechsler, attacking and exposing a man named Minsky who wrote a false Holocaust memoir. (Both Minsky and his memoir are based on a true story).

The suitcase and the items inside destabilize Wechsler’s life.  His memories, his marriage, his entire history – all come into question.  And so he sets out on a journey to Israel, hoping to solve the mystery and piece together who he once was.

Amnon Zichroni – the second protagonist –  is a talented psychoanalyst who was born into a strict German, Orthodox Jewish community.  In an incredible act of love his father, realizing his son will require more interaction with the secular world, sends him to Switzerland to be raised outside of the community.  Amnon’s path is one of balancing spirituality with the material world.  He has been given an extraordinary gift.  A gift he can either accept or deny.  But denial means turning his back on his beliefs.

The Canvas  opens with a simple set of instructions:

There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel.  Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action.  Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.  You can follow the narrative on one side until you get to the middle of the book, then flip it over and continue reading from the beginning of the other side.  To follow one of the side-trails, turn the book over after each chapter, and continue reading where you left off before.  Of course, you’re also free to find your own way.

I chose to follow a side-trail which required regularly flipping the book over.  I alternated between the Amnon Zichroni & Jan Wechsler chapters.  My experience was (though it’s not an adjective I usually use to describe a novel)  surprisingly rewarding.  So much so that it’s difficult to imagine the novel taking any form (or path) other than the one I chose.  At the same time, I realize the narrative can be experienced differently. For example: by someone choosing to remain with Zichroni for the entirety of his narrative and then move on to Wechsler.  (This is exactly what Trevor from Mookse and the Gripes did.  We’ve been discussing The Canvas on his forums for anyone who wants to join in).

On the meandering path I chose each chapter ended on a cliff-hanger.   It was a bit like reading a serial.  Flipping the book over became more and more difficult.  I wanted to continue reading (regardless of which side I was currently on).  Most of the book is spent trying to figure out what is going on.  Stein expertly teases out his story so that when the denouement arrives it is both abrupt and conclusive.  And, like a camera lens locking into focus, all the seemingly disparate elements come together to form a wonderfully complete and cohesive picture.  Both narrators intrigued me.  Though I trusted Wechsler less, neither protagonist’s story ever became the “true story”.   As there is no correct way to read this novel – there is not one correct version of events.  The essentials remain the same, the characters interpretations do not.   And perception really is everything.

Zichroni is only a peripheral figure for most of Wechsler’s narrative – and vice versa.  Because their “relationship” is once removed for most of their lives and narratives, both men are essential to understanding The Canvas.  The unusual format Benjamin Stein chose for his novel is not a gimmick.  Separating his two protagonists in every way possible was necessary to achieving his goals for the book.

The Canvas has a fair amount of symbolism and philosophy – as well as beautiful descriptions of Jewish tradition and teachings – layered into the story.  While there is a mystery involved, it is also a novel about ideas.  And, to some extent  about religion.  (In this way The Canvas reminded me of Daniel Stein, Interpreter).   On the Zichroni side there is one particular passage – a gorgeous description of tzitzes.  Tzitzes are the carefully knotted fringes at the four corners of a prayer shawl.  How they are knotted – the number of knots and coils of the thread used – is symbolic.  I’m not Jewish, or particularly religious, but I found the subject beautiful and fascinating.  The detail which Stein includes regarding Jewish life reminded me more than once of Melville’s descriptions of whaling.  Precise without ever becoming pedantic.

When I was a boy, my father had told me about the deeper meaning of the tzitzes, of the type and number of coils and knots.  They are all symbols for words, and they connect those words inextricably with their meanings.

There are different views on the exact number and sequence of the coils, which provide a coded answer about why people keep the laws.  The Sephardim tie ten, five, six, five coils – in that sequence.  The numbers correspond to the four letters in the name of Hashem.

The Ashkenazim, on the other hand, coil the thread only seven, then eight, eleven, and thirteen times.  The first two segments stand for the first pair of letters in the holy name, the third segment for the second pair.  The fourth segment, finally, has the same numerical value as echod – one – such that the combination of coils stands for Hashem echod – the Lord is one.

I am sure that there are even more variations of knots and coils, but clandestine ones, worn secretly by those who truly know.  But people like that wouldn’t have their tzitzes tied by someone else, not even by my father.

Regarding the translation:  Brian Zumhagen manages to capture each narrator’s distinctive voice, portraying the men as I believe the author envisioned them.  Zichroni is the more thoughtful, introspective, the cadence of the writing in his specific section reads slower.  Wechsler’s voice, in contrast, is brash and hasty.  Even a little slick (though that might be just my interpretation).   I had no problem shifting back and forth – it is impossible to confuse the two.  This, I imagine, was his main challenge.  The other area would be the pacing of the prose, which is perfect.  There was a real danger of Zichroni’s portion to become too wordy – too get lost in stream-of-conscious style (the character is a psychoanalyst) that leaps from topic to topic without getting to the point.  It’s a fine line, and Zumhagen walks it like a seasoned circus performer.

As I mentioned earlier, Trevor from the blog Mookse and the Gripes is also reading The Canvas.  I’m looking forward to his review and will add the link when it’s posted.  The Canvas is scheduled to be released on September 26, but can be pre-ordered.

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 65 8

Waiting for Martel: The Absurdity of Beatrice and Virgil (Advance Review Copy)

Clever dust jacket design! Look carefully & you'll notice that the orange striped background is actually a striped shirt. Credit goes to Greg Mollica & Andy Bridge.

The protagonist of Yann Martel’s new novel is Henry, a writer whose literary path closely resembles Martel’s own.  Like Life of Pi, Henry’s first book is a fable with animals cast as the main characters.  It has been extremely successful.  Not surprisingly,  his next book follows the same formula – another fable with animals.  This time about the Holocaust.

Beatrice and Virgil begins at a luncheon set up by Henry’s publisher to discuss his new book. The other attendees are extremely critical and, disheartened, Henry stops writing. He moves with his wife to an unnamed city and takes on a series of jobs that have nothing to do with his former life – working at a coffee shop and performing with an amateur theater company.  His days are punctuated by a steady stream of letters from fans of his first novel, all of which he answers personally.  He seems content, even happy.  Until one day Henry receives an envelope containing a short story by Flaubert and a strange letter asking for his help. It leads him to a taxidermy shop in the city where he lives. The shop’s owner, also named Henry, is writing a play about a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice.  Henry-the-Author, along with the reader, spends the rest of the book attempting to decipher the puzzle of the taxidermist and his play.

And that’s where things get sticky.

Yann Martel is a writer who possesses the rare talent of being able to make characters and settings leap off a page and into the imagination. Beatrice and Virgil contains a particularly well done passage where Virgil describes a pear. It’s good.  (In fact, it’s so good that I strongly recommend finding the book and turning immediately to page 44).  These kinds of meaty descriptions combined with anthropomorphized animals have become Martel’s stock in trade.  As a result Beatrice and Virgil is a compulsively readable book.  Getting from start to finish is a relatively simple task and few would argue Martel’s skill as a writer. But once the reader moves past Martel’s obvious talent, she is left facing a seriously disjointed narrative and an incoherent plot.

As far as I can tell, Yann Martel has thrown every idea he’s ever had about the Holocaust into Beatrice and Virgil.  The book contains (in no particular order): a play styled after Beckett’s Waiting for Godot;  a theoretical flip book about the Holocaust – one side of which is a fable, the other a non-fiction essay; a parallel drawn between the genocide of the Jews and the slaughter of animals; a metaphor involving rabid house pets attacking each other; an invented “game” which poses a series of moral dilemmas to the players; scenes of graphic torture; and an episode at a lake that reminded me of the infamous chase across the ice flows in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (admittedly, I’m probably alone in that last connection).  Martel has also included the more familiar appurtenances of the Holocaust: a striped shirt, anti-Semitic posters, the Hitler salute (a primate version thereof) and a Nazi sympathizer so two-dimensional he’s a cardboard cutout.  And then there’s the Sewing Kit.  This seems to be a symbol, and/or a metaphor, which acts as a container for more symbols, and/or more metaphors – most of which are too obscure for Martel to bother explaining  to his characters, let alone to the reader.   Combine all this stuff with interminable conversations between characters on meanings and intentions, without any true plot momentum taking place… well, I can probably stop there.

Martel self-consciously references the problems within Beatrice and Virgil by attributing his book’s flaws to Henry-the-Author’s unpublished work and Henry-the-Taxidermist’s unfinished play.     This is what alternately confuses and maddens;  if Martel is aware of the issues why not correct them?  Take this first quote:  Henry-the-Author’s critique on Henry-the-Taxidermist’s play.

“Let me ask you a simple question: what’s your play about?”

If Henry hadn’t seen it earlier, he was starting to see now where the problem lay with the taxidermist’s play, why he needed help. There seemed to be essentially no action and no plot in it. Just two characters by a tree talking. It had worked with Beckett and Diderot. Mind you, those two were crafty and they packed a lot of action into the apparent inaction. But inaction wasn’t working for the author of A 20th-Century Shirt.

The next section is from the ill-fated dinner where Henry-the-Author’s manuscript is dissected by an assortment of editors, historians and critics.

“I get all that,” the historian said with a trace of impatience. “But once again, what is your book about?”

To that third iteration of the question, Henry had no answer. Perhaps he didn’t know what his book was about. Perhaps that was the problem with it. His chest rose as he breathed in heavily and sighed. He stared at the white table cloth. Red-faced and at a loss for words.

An editor broke the awkward silence. “Dave has a point,” he said. “There needs to be a tighter focus in both the novel and the essay. This book you’ve written is tremendously powerful, a remarkable achievement, we all agree on that, but as it stands now, the novel lacks drive and the essay lacks unity.”

As I said, Martel is consistent in his critiques – the absence of  a unified plot, the lack of action, the endless dialogue. The question is:  why? Is Beatrice and Virgil nothing but an exercise in the absurd?  Or is Yann Martel simply stating that the genocide of over 5 million people is wrong,  and that everything else (the books, symbols, plays, films) is so much clutter obscuring that single, important and inescapable truth?  Has he unwittingly created his own version of the clutter?  Is the book a misguided writing experiment?

In the end I have absolutely no idea…  which is why Beatrice and Virgil fails.  When an author’s message is this unclear his reader is left with no choice but to make assumptions about his intentions.  And assumptions ultimately are more about the person who is making them than what they are being made about.  If after two hundred and thirteen pages all the reader is left with is her own assumptions, what has been accomplished?

Spain

Publisher:  Spiegel & Grau, New York.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 4000 6926 2

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