Sunday, December 16, 2012

Where There’s Smoke (on the Cover): Halfon’s Polish Boxer

There are times when cover art truly does complement—and perhaps even compliment—a book’s content: Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer really is a smoky wisp of a book, with just 188 smallish pages and several ethereal plot-like lines that float through ten stories of varying length. I read the book in the English translation of the Spanish original El boxeador polaco, which was translated by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead, and Anne McLean… with the help of Halfon, who lives in Nebraska but frequently returns to Guatemala, where he was born. Their work, which crossed many time zones, feels seamless, creating one voice.

The Polish Boxer is almost as difficult to describe as smoke, too: these linked, first-person stories are thoroughly imaginable and tangible, but they also dissipate, blending together like smoke and fog, leaving lovely traces of meaning as Halfon explores identity and meaning. Halfon’s made-for-metafiction-narrator is an academic named Eduardo Halfon. On the first page, Halfon-as-teacher describes a classroom scene meant to instruct readers, too, mentioning an essay by Ricardo Piglia that discusses “the dual nature of the short story,” which contains a visible narrative and a secret tale. This first story, “Distant,” tells of a scholarship student who writes poetry; he meets after class with Halfon, making the individual student feel like a secret tale set against the backdrop of a more visible, public narrative about class meetings.

Halfon begins dropping hints about the Polish boxer—and his grandfather and Auschwitz—in the next story, “Twaining,” about a trip to North Carolina for a Mark Twain conference. We continue on to “Epistrophy,” in which we meet Eduardo’s dishy girlfriend and hear Serbian-gypsy pianist Milan Rakic play music not listed on the program, than advance (after a quick stop in “White Smoke” at a Scottish bar that’s not in Scotland) to “The Polish Boxer,” which begins with the number, 69752, tattooed on Eduardo’s grandfather’s arm. Eduardo’s grandfather tells him it’s his telephone number, tattooed so he won’t forget. We know that’s not true.

The Polish boxer, according to the grandfather, is someone who helped save him in the camps… but the story turns out to be (maybe? truly?) untrue, even if it sounds like a great story. Even better, on the last page of the book, two of Eduardo’s grandfather’s friends discuss him, offering details that don’t quite match Eduardo’s memories of his grandfather, showing, once again, the shiftiness of identity and how we describe it.

I particularly enjoyed the story line about Rakic, in which Eduardo flies to post-war Serbia—wars are important in The Polish Boxer—to find the man, who’s sent him postcards from all over as he tours. Eduardo enlists the help of gypsies in Serbia, who look at Rakic’s photo and say he can’t be a gypsy. The gypsies, Eduardo says, look as if “they existed outside of this world.” I think the same could probably be said about Eduardo, his grandfather, his girlfriend and her orgasm drawings, the elusive Milan Rakic, and all the rest of us. A number tattooed on an arm may be indelible and it may symbolize a lot, but identity—in the sense of a person’s real, personal depths—is something as elusive and subjective as a wisp of smoke.

Disclosures: I picked up a copy of The Polish Boxer from Bellevue Literary Press at BookExpo America. Thank you!

Up Next: It remains to be seen… 

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