Ten autobiographical short stories about his Jewish grandfather that become a novel: Eduardo Halfon’s "The Polish Boxer."
Came into the world in Guatemala City, illuminated here: Eduardo Halfon. Image: reuters
In 1945, Eduardo Halfon’s grandfather reaches Guatemala – a number tattooed on his arm. Never again will he speak a word of Polish. His grandson, the writer Eduardo Halfon, is born in Guatemala City in 1971. But in 1981, at the height of the violence in the civil war between the military and the guerrillas, in which an estimated 200,000 people, mainly from Guatemala’s indigenous population, died by 1996, his parents decided to go to the United States with their children.
After studying engineering in North Carolina, Eduardo Halfon begins to write. In 2003, his first short stories appear in Spanish. At the 2007 HAY Festival in Colombia, he is named one of the best young Latin American writers. For several years he lived again in Guatemala, where he taught literature at the University Francisco MarroquIn. His book "Der polnische Boxer" (The Polish Boxer), which has just been published in German for the first time, also begins with an autobiographical episode from that time: there, in a literature seminar, amidst a crowd of bored and spoiled students, the narrator meets the young Juan Kalel from the province of Chimaltenango.
A full scholarship allows him to study economics. However, he is much more interested in literature, and writes poetry – sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in Cakchiquel. In this Mayan language, poetry means a network of words – "Pach’un tzij," Kalel translates to his teacher. When the young student fails to show up for class one day, Halfon sets off for Tecpan, to the home of the Kalel family – to another world.
This is followed by nine other short stories: about the author’s participation in a Mark Twain meeting on the grounds of a golf club in North Carolina, his acquaintance with a Serbian pianist in a bar in Antigua, Guatemala, or the first-person narrator’s futile search for that musician in Belgrade.
Eduardo Halfon: "The Polish Boxer. Novel in ten rounds". Translated from the Spanish by Peter Kulten and Luis Ruby, Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 176 pages, 17.90 euros.
Readings on September 19 in Berlin (Instituto Cervantes) and on the 24th in Munich (Instituto Cervantes).
They are connected by the narrator Halfon as well as by his ever-present and abruptly flashing memory of the story of his Jewish grandfather and his anecdote about the Polish boxer. Thus the narratives condense into a kind of novel.
Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, the black wall
In 2001, Eduardo Halfon actually asked his grandfather about his past and the number on his arm. He then told his grandson for the first time about Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz, the black wall, and the threat of execution. He also told of a chance encounter with a Polish boxer whose words had saved his life. What he had told him, the old man gave no information.
In a 2009 interview for Guatemalan television, Halfon recounted how, for a very long time, he had shrunk from the task of writing about these grandfather experiences with a mixture of fear and respect. But he also realized that, in a way, the grandfather himself had transformed reality into something literary with his anecdote about the Polish boxer. Driven by this struggle for the appropriate literary form, Halfon has succeeded with "The Polish Boxer" in writing a condensed, but at the same time quite branched, multi-layered novel, which links the different worlds in a writing way – and not only because it seems to be part of his own biography.