Jewish literature is like red wine: it tends to find the fullness of its flavor after some years of maturation in the barrel. The vintages of Proust, Malamud, and Bellow only began to open up around the age of forty. E. L. Doctorow did not produce Ragtime until he was forty-four. And for every Mailer, meant to be uncorked and drunk straight from the bottle, there was a Kafka, who would have to rest in his oaken cask decades before his grapes could be properly appreciated.
Eduardo Halfon––born, brissed, bar-mitzvahed, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, forty-seven years old––is, inescapably, a Jewish author. Yet he has written that “the discourse about Judaism being in the blood… about Judaism not being a religion but something genetic, sounds the same as the discourse used by Hitler.” Halfon identifies more readily, perhaps, as a Guatemalan author. His prose––written in Spanish, but steeped in Hebrew tradition––results in a sort of hybrid varietal, part Jorge Luis Borges, part Sholom Aleichem.
In Mourning, as in Halfon’s first two books translated into English, The Polish Boxer and Monastery, the protagonist is the irreverent, perambulatory Guatemalan author “Eduardo Halfon.” An imperfect chameleon, continually one shade off the native color, his narrator embarks on a pilgrimage to the ghettos and concentration camps of Europe, ostensibly to research his grandfather’s survival story. But the narrator himself questions why he is traveling from place to place, and the result is an impressionistic series of lyrical vignettes. Roaming the ashes of the old country, uncovering old horrors, Halfon becomes an archaeologist of atrocity. His work is fiction clothed as memoir. His chronicles are his mourner’s Kaddish.
The literary output of Shoah survivors, that tannic canon of Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, is fast disappearing from the world. In its place younger vines are sprouting up: sweeter, brighter, and somewhat more ethereal. Rather than Jewish or Guatemalan, Halfon self-describes as an “epicurean” author. He revels in pleasures of the flesh, and his narrator smokes incessantly. Cigarettes act as a kind of punctuation between his vignettes. (His books, fittingly, have all been released as slim noir volumes, their covers adorned with wisps of cigarette smoke.)
When Halfon visits Ferramonti di Tarsia, Mussolini’s largest internment camp, he becomes physically ill upon realizing the place is only a replica, a “theme park dedicated to human suffering,” and that he, himself, Halfon, “at that very moment, standing on the threshold of that fake block,” is “part of the performance.” A recurring theme in Halfon’s writing is the dissonance produced when an attempt to mourn the past diminishes into ritual, or farce. In a pivotal scene, treading the ground of Auschwitz where his grandfather was imprisoned and tattooed, Halfon is inexplicably bedecked in a woman’s pink overcoat, and his walk has become “a Polish woman’s walk.”
Eighty years have passed since the murders, and time has stirred some comedy in with the tragedy. Halfon’s description of the boy Yankele Herszcowitz, standing atop a wooden box in the Lodz ghetto, singing “songs of satire,” and the character of a Haredi rabbi, drowning in cloth, suffocating under the weight of his own prayer tales, invoke shades of a more whimsical Jewish author, Mel Brooks.
It is easy to forget, gliding through the first part of Mourning, that the book is a translation of the original Spanish text. (The novel is translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn.) The vernacular is almost American, the style spare and lucid. But when Halfon travels to the shores of Lake Amatitlán, Guatemala, to seek out the mystery of his uncle Salomón who drowned in the lake as a child, a more tropical style surfaces. The rain is “a silk curtain, barely perceptible but constant.” Halfon notices “a motionless cayuco, a small wooden canoe, in the water, far off, its black outline barely visible in the shadow of dusk.”
Guatemala draws out memories of the author’s childhood, of paddling out over the lake on an acrylic surfboard, and a Casio watch he dropped in the lake all those years ago. In lamenting the loss of his watch, Halfon reflects on the submergence of time:
A village began to twinkle on the other side of the lake. Behind me, the whole mountain was the shriek of a single bat. I kept watching the water, so dark and serene at that hour of the evening, and soon it struck me that right there, at the bottom of the lake, lay my black plastic watch, still timing, still waiting to reach the end point of that straight line, that final surfboard ride.
Coffee and cardamom plantations, cantinas, Nazi U-boat bases, clowns, brothels, Quezalteca firewater, kreplach. These are the warm, floral notes that carry Halfon’s distinctive quality. A boy stands goggle-eyed in a women’s bathing suit factory in Hialeah. Young men play dominoes in the ghetto. A ranchera sounds in the distance. The year might be 1981, or 2018, or 1939. Time is fluid––and somewhere beneath our feet lie the dead.
What is life if not a theme park dedicated to human suffering? As Halfon circles the family graves, his quest to unearth the truth, the backstory, feels at times hopeless, like a man chasing dust. People speak to him in incomprehensible dialects and accents; he interprets their meaning through vibrations or the rhythms emitted. “Words I didn’t understand… sounded beautiful, indispensable, like the serene and precise orders of a war nurse.” Halfon is the sort of traveler who admits he knows nothing, yet finds enlightenment everywhere. Mourning emits some little illumination of human nature on every page.
Remembering, at its core, is an act of deconstruction. To scrutinize the past, one must approach the walls between then and now. There is something touching about Halfon paying tribute to the wall of the Fukuromachi school in Japan, where children and teachers were vaporized by the Hiroshima bomb. Or staggering among the crowds at the wailing wall. Or rubbing his hand against a brick wall of the Warsaw ghetto, where his ancestors were rounded like cattle for the slaughter. A wall, Halfon says, is “the physical manifestation of man’s hatred of the other. A palpable, concrete manifestation that attempts to eliminate the other from our sight and from the world.” But, he cautions, “a wall is never bigger than the spirit of those it confines. Because the other is still there. The other doesn’t disappear, never disappears. The other’s other is me.”
Despite his claims of being a “retired Jew,” the author cannot, admittedly, shed the ancient skin. The urge to memorialize the horrors is ingrained in the wood. At the black heart of Mourning lies Halfon’s obsession with the Holocaust, and the scars that persist through the generations. He collects names and records, and tells of his own journeys, and, like a flower-picker in the ruins, he pulls stories of human kindness and grace from the trauma. If more questions arise than judgments, more absurdities than answers, perhaps that is the most honest outcome. And if responses to certain images become conditioned in the reader, as when the vision of a delicate tattoo on the wrist of a Calabrian girl calls to mind the green numbers branded on his grandfather’s arm, the reader is left to make the connection between beauty and pain.
It is upon the living, Halfon writes, to “leave testimony,” to:
…put our whole lives into words. Even if we have to do it on loose or stolen pages. Or get up from a last supper to go find one last slip of yellow paper. Or tell it nameless or with an invented name, written down in an enormous register. Or use little pieces of white chalk on a black wall with smoke. Or do it in the margins of some other book. Or sing it while standing on a trash can.
Stories of the Shoah, of those who survived, and of those who were complicit in the barbarity, seem particularly poignant nowadays. What Eduardo Halfon accomplishes in his books––the work of excavating, remembering, mourning––is crucial if we hope to avoid the mistakes of the past. But his non-traditional methods and melodies, the peculiar observances that emerge in his writing, offer the promise of something completely original: a Guatemalan, Jewish blend that is just now beginning to breathe.