In October earlier this year, with the support of Words without Borders the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon came to New York City to promote The Polish Boxer, a book about one Eduardo Halfon who is haunted by the number “69752” tattooed on his grandfather’s arm. At BookCourt he read from the title story, in which Halfon the character finally discovers the story behind the number.
I will be interviewing him soon. Based on the Q&A that followed the reading at BookCourt (most* of which I have transcribed below), I have a feeling that the conversation will be a thorough one.
* “Most,” because I’d missed recording a couple of questions.
Q: How did your grandfather react to the coming of war in Guatemala?
EH: As most Guatemalans of his social class reacted: What war? It was a four-decade civil war fought between the guerrillas and the military in the mountains. Most Guatemalans in the city, of a certain economic or social class, just put it out of their minds. When the gunshots came into the city in the late seventies, they left. Most Guatemalans would not talk of it. We didn’t know of it. My grandfather, as far as I could remember, didn’t pay much attention. I thought you were going to ask how he reacted to the publication of the book.
Q: How did he?
EH: He cried. My mom read the entire book to him. I don’t think he got it. It was at the end of his life. He was a little senile in the last few months, a little at the beginning and then a lot at the end. In the last month he was in bed, he thought the German officer was in his room, and he kept speaking to him, in German. When he finally died, I walked in on a Saturday morning. This is the last chapter of the book, his death scene, but I left this detail out of the book, because it was too presumptuous: I walked in on a Saturday morning, but he couldn’t be moved until sundown because of Shabbat, so his body was on the bed and he was covered with a quilt—my grandmother was sitting on her side of the bed, hunched over, and my grandfather had shrunk physically and also in my head, he was such a small man compared to the man I had written about—and on his nightstand was my book. I think on some level he was proud that his story somehow would stay behind. I don’t think he understood everything I’d done with his experience. My family still doesn’t get it, and I’ve had a little bit of a tiff there. But just the fact that his testimony stayed—he didn’t take it with him. He was going to take it with him to his grave, but he knew that if he didn’t open up somehow, he would have to take it with him—so he had to open up to someone about this thing that had happened to him. That’s perhaps why he told me the writer—not his grandson, but his writer grandson. This is my inheritance. I inherited the family story. For good or for bad, I’m a writer, and what I do is write stories.
Q: Did you fictionalize any of it?
EH: Yes, I only write fiction.