Monday, December 31, 2012

Fire: Fahrenheit 451 and The Book Thief

I first read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 a long time ago, probably in high school: about all I remembered until last week was that firemen started fires rather than preventing them. And their specialty was burning books, which were outlawed.

Same as mine.
Price: $1.25 
When Ray Bradbury died earlier this year and I read, a little later, Russian fiction that referred to him, I took out my old copy of Fahrenheit 451. The glue in the binding cracked and the pages were yellowed, but the story itself felt ridiculously up-to-the-minute, despite having been written in the fifties. The biggest surprise was that Bradbury all but predicted reality TV, viewers’ extreme attachment to TV characters they think of as family, and viewers’ extreme attachment to their TV parlors and equipment. Even Christ has become one of the TV family, making, as one character says, “veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshiper absolutely needs.”

The personal stories of Guy Montag, the fireman who begins collecting books and doubting his work, and his TV-addled wife Millie, felt secondary to me compared to Bradbury’s dystopian world, where people drive so super-fast that billboards are super-long and people no longer listen to each other because their TV friends seem realer than their real friends.

[Now, watch out for spoilers…] Montag’s sudden, fiery separation from his job and his wife are less surprising than the fact that his escape is carefully tracked and presented by the media. Even more interesting, though, is that Montag finds readers—some are former professors—who memorize books so they can recite them. This reminded me of Soviet-era samizdat (self-publishing, often on a typewriter) and memorization of forbidden poems. The idea of carrying books around in one’s head, combined with the pictures of future TV and the relative peace outside the city (there’s also a war going on…) made the book well worth rereading.

I read another book involving book burning—Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief—but it’s set in the past, Nazi Germany, instead of the future. The Book Thief is probably as familiar these days as Fahrenheit 451 so I won’t go into detail... you probably already know, for example, that Death narrates this thick novel about a girl named Liesel Meminger who goes to live with a foster family in a town called Molching. I very rarely read young adult books but this one caught me, probably because I thought Zusak made a wise choice in making Death his first-person narrator. For one thing, as an omnipresent and omnipotent narrator, Death can offer, occasionally and a bit officiously, historical details that readers might or might not already know. But Death (the narrator) is also surprisingly compassionate and humorous, as is Zusak’s book, thanks to characters like Liesel the book thief, her accordion-playing foster father Hans, and her friend Rudy who reveres Jesse Owens, a dangerous habit in Nazi Germany.

Up Next: Quim Monz√≥’s A Thousand Morons.

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…