The Polish Boxer*, a slim collection of linked stories by the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon, is a revelation. Published by Bellevue Literary Press, it arrived practically unannounced this fall, only a whisper of notice perhaps in small presses and journals. But this is one of those books that will stop you in your tracks and leave you shaking your head in wonder.
In this little jigsaw puzzle of a book, Halfon’s fictional fragments move effortlessly from Antigua, Guatemala, a cultural transit-point of Central America; to Durham, North Carolina; Belgrade and Póvoa do Varzim, Portugal. Narrated by “Eduardo Halfon,” a Jewish-Guatemalan writer and literature professor much like the author, these stories wrestle with issues of art and writing, identity, Auschwitz, sexual ecstasy, and Gypsy music, among other things. And they thrum with a kind of earthy Latin American braininess; Halfon’s is a relentless search for answers and secret keys to the riddles of life and family, history and home, truth and passion.
The book really begins to soar in the third section, “Epistrophy,” in which the narrator encounters Milan Rakic, a half-Gypsy, Serbian pianist who is performing at an arts festival in Antigua. It is Rakic, “a modern nomad, an allegorical nomad,” who will lead this book in unexpected directions in two stunning chapters that follow. The first, “Postcards,” is a series of enigmatic snapshots on jazz and obscure Gypsy artists that Rakic sends to Halfon from his tours around the globe, as the classically trained musician becomes drawn ever deeper into the mystery of his own father’s roots as a wandering accordionist. And the second, “The Pirouette,” involves Halfon’s extraordinary search for the lost Rakic, who has disappeared into “his own damn myth” somewhere in the smoky Gypsy underworld of post-Communist Belgrade.
The stories are cleverly, artfully, tied together—an American academic conference on Mark Twain (who happened to pass through Nicaragua in 1866); a literary symposium in Portugal, where Halfon ponders the vexed relationship between literature and reality; beachfront nights spent drinking, reading, and making love to his girlfriend, Lía, who afterward attempts to capture on paper the ebb and flow of her orgasms as if she were sketching waves or dreams. Anchoring all the musings and journeys, there’s the story of Halfon’s grandfather, saved from Auschwitz by his cellmate, a boxer from the same Polish town of Lodz, who over one long night coaches him on how to face an examination by the Nazi guards and survive.
In fact, it is Halfon’s grandfather’s buried past, finally divulged over several glasses of whiskey, that provides the book’s powerful central image: the “five mysterious green digits that, much more than his forearm, seemed to me to be tattooed on some part of his soul.” As a boy, Halfon was told the tattoo was so his grandfather wouldn’t forget his phone number. After his grandfather dies in the book’s closing piece, “Sunsets,” Halfon’s mind swings from those figures burned into his flesh to Lia’s drawings and visions of Mayan temples at dusk, breathlessly seeking a unifying thread to the book’s jumble of elements: “I thought about the five digits, green, faded, already dying on my grandfather’s forearm beneath that thick maroon-and-black quilt. I thought about Auschwitz, I thought about tattoos, about numbers, about sketches, about temples, about sunsets.”
The Polish Boxer is a book of small miracles—not least of which that it was translated by a team of five translators—and Halfon, named one of the best young Latin American writers by the Bogotá Hay festival, is a writer to behold. His work, in some ways, brings to mind other authors, from the saltiness of the Cuban Pedro Juan Gutierrez and Henry Miller (whose epigraph opens the book); to the haunting voices of migration and diaspora of John Berger and the Argentine Edgardo Cozarinsky. Also, for sheer narrative momentum and fascination with the mix of life and books, sex and art, there are echoes of the Chilean master Roberto Bolaño. This is only the first work by Halfon to be translated into English. And as he’s come to us so quietly, almost stealthily, this feels like the rarest of discoveries.
* Words Without Borders published part of The Polish Boxer –an extract translated by Ezra E. Fitz—in our July 2009 issue, “Memory and Lies.”