Eduardo Halfon is unsatisfied with something. So he decides to travel (or escape?) in attempt to discover what’s missing. His novel The Polish Boxer is a murky study on the influence of geography on a person’s desires. The narrator, also named Eduardo Halfon, leads us from Guatemala to North Carolina, back to Guatemala and then to Serbia where he searches for his long lost pen-pal, Milan Raki´c. Initially conceived as a handful of short stories, The Polish Boxer is Halfon’s tenth work of fiction, but his first book to be translated into English. (It was originally published in Spain in 2008.)
Halfon’s curiosity about his grandfather’s experience in a concentration camp burns through every chapter from the most subtle level to deep investigation. Halfon only knows that it was a Polish boxer who saved his grandfather, Oitze, in Auschwitz, but the details remain a mystery. Oitze only shows Halfon the most gruesome yet blurriest mental slides of Auschwitz. “The claustrophobic image of the dark, damp, crowded cell stuffed with whispers” sets the tone for most of the novel. To Halfon, the idea of a boxer saving Oitze is a relic, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, and he holds tightly to the hopes that something or someone will come along to save him too.
He tries to satiate his inquisitiveness for his grandfather’s past by mentoring Juan Kalel, a literature student of his who lives in an impoverished hamlet far from the university. In an effort to help Kalel stay in school, Halfon drives for hours past cauliflower orchards and “a half dozen adobe and rusted metal shacks.” They meet up and he watches a fortune-teller predict his future in Cakchickel, a language he does not speak. Halfon is too demure to ask for a translation. This is the first of many times we see fear hinder him. He is overwhelmed by his curiosity and yet derailed by his timidness. From then on, the novel proceeds as an internal investigation of what Halfon doesn’t know about himself versus what he needs to know about the world.
Halfon narrates in a half-stupor–attempting to find meaning in his travels but not really sure why. He goes to a Mark Twain conference in North Carolina and feels judged and stilted for being the only foreigner. He nearly shuts down; only speaking to draw parallels between Don Quixote and Huck Finn.
Lía, his girlfriend (or intermittent muse), shows up sporadically solely to caress and dote on Halfon. She’s a scientist who keeps a notebook of orgasm drawings, a cheesy anecdote that is one of the novel’s few blemishes. Her presence is nearly ethereal; just an occasional vice of affection and companionship. He knows he’s lucky to have her as his rock, but like everything else he is uncertain of his commitment.
By featuring himself as the protagonist, Halfon meshes fiction with reality. He plays explicit narrator and tenebrous storyteller equally. He conspicuously mingles the two telling us that, “Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing.” He becomes this magician when chasing down Milan, and trying to reconstruct a postcard he once wrote that read, “There’s always more than one truth to everything.”
As the novel progresses, its metafictional hue grows stronger and brighter. His inscrutable desire to find Milan and uncover Oitze’s past are depicted as surreal cravings. His imagination somersaults, and in attempt to solve their mysteries he embraces their stories as his own. He compares his obsession to know more about their lives the way “a curious, morbid, slightly fearful child needs to look under the bed for ghosts.”
Halfon gives us a thorough tour through Belgrade, a city of “people wrapped in gray in black” and thrilling like “a faded dream sequence from an old film.” He dines on hedgehog, cheese pastries and Balkan brandy, and hangs out at a rustic gypsy camp. It’s here where we observe Halfon come into himself; like a college student on a year abroad, he is self-critical, vulnerable, and grateful to be amongst the “Gothic-looking Serbian teenagers” and gypsies. Under the dim light of a smoky bar, acquaintances, friends, and prostitutes all blend into the same enigmatic Serbian, and it’s this character that Halfon mirrors himself against.
Halfon’s writing could be more lucid. Time is scarcely mentioned and obscurely measured. Details are sparse compared to the intricacies of his emotional narration. Yet, he has succeeded in warping a modern Balkan mystery into a Holocaust memoir. Halfon’s writing is best when he curates nostalgia; reminiscing with a fine-tooth comb and vivifying every thrilling and romantic memory.
Although Halfon is fluent in English and has spent over a quarter of his life living in the United States, he chose to write The Polish Boxer in Spanish and invited Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean to translate it. Knowing Halfon’s background and listening to him speak in English, it is perplexing to understand why he didn’t translate it himself. Yet, the way he intrinsically blends fiction with reality in such a deeply visceral way, perhaps it could have only been written in one’s native language.