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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the December 2014 issue

Eduardo Halfon’s “Monastery”

Reviewed by Megha Majumdar

In Halfon's "Monastery," our narrator asserts the accidental nature of nationality.

At a gathering in Brooklyn to celebrate the launch of Eduardo Halfon's Monastery, the author remarked on the numbers of translators who have worked on his books. “It takes a village,” summed up a reader in the audience, describing the allied yet fraught task of a writer and his translators. Here, in the limpid language of translators Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn, we find a world in which words, regardless of language, are unequal to the life of the protagonist.

In Halfon's Monastery, our narrator—who is, in a revealing choice, also named Eduardo Halfon—is both Jewish and not, both Guatemalan and not. He asserts the accidental nature of nationality: “The ship, after several months on the high seas, finally docked at the first port in Central America, and according to family legend, my great-grandfather thought they'd arrived in Panama, where one of his distant cousins lived. There they disembarked. And there they stayed. In Guatemala. By accident.” Halfon does not remain in Guatemala, however. As an adult he leads a life of relentless travel, nearing and withdrawing from places where he might have belonged.

In this collection of stories, which we can be persuaded into reading as a novel, Halfon encounters strangers and family (no less perplexing than strangers), testing his sense of self against their notions of who he is. In “The Birds Are Back,” he sits down to a meal with a family of Guatemalan coffee farmers who relate with pride and some sorrow the story of how they earned the freedom to set their own market prices. Meanwhile, Halfon, Guatemalan himself, wonders what his nationality means at that table. Later, he comes close to an articulation of it when a shoeshine boy asks him where he is from: “I said in my best Guatemalan accent that I was Guatemalan, same as he was. He smiled, not looking at me, incredulous.”

Perhaps because he is a constant outsider, encountering the new, the ordinary becomes meaningful to him. His observations are constant, and rewarding—he is as attentive to a man whispering sleazy words on the road as to an attractive member of a Lufthansa crew, a woman who emerges from the narrator’s past. At best, Halfon’s encounters with the foreign make him humble. At worst, they make the character of Halfon proud. In “White Sand, Black Stone,” he finds himself stuck in a border town near Belize, wavering between gratitude and suspicion as a truck driver lends him a hand. Another story, “Surviving Sundays,” takes us to New York City's Harlem, where Halfon, unsure of the way to a small jazz concert, finds himself rescued by a woman caught in her own, inescapable, borderland: life after a child's death. The humility in these stories makes us vulnerable to Halfon.

But the narration does not always succeed in providing openings onto what the book claims as obsessions—Is Halfon Guatemalan? Are you ___?

These questions remain unanswered. More worryingly, at times they spare Halfon their full gaze, allowing our narrator to forgive moments in which he is intolerant of difference. In the opening story, “Tel Aviv Was An Inferno,” Halfon is impatient with his sister’s Orthodox Jewish fiancé. The fiancé, he writes, “wanted to show us around the neighborhood of the yeshiva where he studied. My brother and I immediately smiled at each other, each with the same thought: not a chance.” And so, we are turned away from the edge of contemplation, toward a joke. The question which presses against this moment—why Halfon dismisses another's sense of self, struggling as he is with his own—is silenced.

Part of this tendency may come from the (determinedly) wandering nature of this book. Our narrator is restless. And so, attempts at profound thought seem hasty, unearned: “It struck me then, watching my brother stand there in front of all of the gray buildings of Kiryat Mattersdorf, that the discourse about Judaism not being a religion but something genetic, sounded the same as the discourse used by Hitler. There are thoughts that jump up, dark and clammy, like little frogs.”

This thought arises not from a thorough understanding of place or religious experience, but from a space interior to the narrator that we are never allowed to shine our readerly light on. Thoughts such as these leave us with the impression of having read something not only slender—which the book is—but also slight. The book's observations, arresting as they are, begin to flee as soon as we close the covers. In the end, the stories leave so many possibilities ajar—questions left gestural, interrogations undone—that the temptation for this reader is to consider what they could have been.

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