Eduardo Halfon at BookCourt, 10.15.12

November 24, 2012

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.

Q: You had mentioned a series of stories based on characters that were like you; that was the genesis of this book. So this is a novel that’s entirely based on your grandfather’s story?

EH: No. It’s a hard book to pin down. The book can be read as a series of ten stories. Each story or chapter should stand alone; it was written to stand alone. When I started writing this book—and this is really strange for an engineer to understand—I didn’t know what I was writing, I didn’t know where I was headed. I was just writing encounters I was having with people. A Mark Twain conference—an expert on the work of Mark Twain, an old guy in Durham, North Carolina, spent the entire weekend at the conference telling jokes. A classical pianist I met—this is a story in the book. A student I had in Guatemala—indigenous, perhaps the best student I’d ever had; an economics major who wrote poetry and suddenly had to leave the university. What I noticed in these apparently separate pieces: first of the all, the narrator is always a version of me, it’s the same narrator; and all of these characters are the same. They’re parallel and, on one level, searching for roots. The engineer in me then kicked in, and I started putting this chaotic structure together. It needed a column here, a joist there, and it became a collection. Readers and reviewers will fight to the death that it’s a novel, and others will fight to the death that it’s a story collection. My publisher has an answer, and I have an answer. I think it’s both—this strange genre where it can be both.

Q: What is the difference? How do you play with both fiction and autobiography?

EH: Latin Americans have no trouble doing this, and I in particular have no trouble doing this. I always begin with reality. Always. Whether it be with my grandfather, with my childhood in the 1970s, with my relationship to my father—which was the subject of my first book. My first book was a letter to my father. At some point in the writing process, what I’m writing detaches itself from reality. I don’t know why. I don’t know when. I can’t explain it. I know why I’m doing this. I have a reason why I’m walking that tightrope, between what’s real and what’s not. It’s got a lot to do with a child’s perspective. We want to believe what we believe. We want Santa Claus to be real. We want the story to be true. When people read The Polish Boxer, they cry. It’s because they think it’s real. All these mechanisms of disguising the narrator as myself—that’s what happens. People think it’s absolutely true. And it is. The essence of the story is absolutely true. And for that to work, for that part to be here, I need the reader to dive in here without questioning whether it’s true or not.

Q: How do you relate to the Eduardo Halfon that is the character?

EH: Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. He’s a lot more adventurous than I am. I think he’s perhaps what I’d like to be at times. I would like to be a smoker. I love smoking. It’s bad for me, though, so the rational side of me says Don’t smoke. But if it weren’t bad for me, I’d be a chain smoker. And he travels in a way where he’s not afraid. I travel a lot, but I’m not a good traveler. I’m a little neurotic about traveling. So he’s almost this alter ego of things that I’d like to be but I’m not. Especially in the uninhibited. He’s also got a girlfriend—who my wife is jealous of. Which is really strange. My wife is very jealous. This is good; that means it works.

Q: Did your grandfather keep a diary of any kind?

EH: No diary. Two or three photos.

Q: Any other family members or friends during this time who survived?

EH: Yes: two cousins in Guatemala. He didn’t choose Guatemala. The story was: Where is anybody of my family in this world? So he just went looking for anybody who was still alive.

Q: You briefly mentioned that when he speaks of this number, his accent changes. What do you mean?

EH: He speaks in Spanish, which is very heavy. At times, when he was speaking about this—and I later filmed him, so I have him on film speaking about this—he would almost revert to a different way of speaking. His accent would change. He would perhaps invoke a little bit more of the Polish, a language he’d refused to speak for the last sixty years of his life. He would speak German. He was more offended with the Polish people than with the Germans. He never went back to Poland. He would prohibit us from going to Poland. He would laugh every time I told him I wanted to go to Poland. But at the end when he was in bed, he wrote for me on a little piece of paper his exact address and how to get there. And I went. I think the Polish might be what was creeping in there, but I’m not sure. His way of speaking also changed. I could see this in the video. When I watch him, when he speaks of that time, something changes, the way he expresses himself.

Q: What was your experience bringing this book to the States, and in English?

EH: Most people ask why didn’t I translate it myself. I don’t feel comfortable yet translating myself for various reasons, especially because my literary language is Spanish. I can speak perfect English, but I don’t write in English, so I’m a little respectful of that fact. But I was very involved in the translation. It was wonderful at times, and difficult at times, because you are negotiating with the translators. [Note: There had been five translators involved.] To see the book in English is almost to see it in its original language, because it was in my head. Which is bizarre. I had a sentence in my head that the translator translated in one way, and I said, No, that’s not right, because in my head it was a little different. So we had to find a way to make it work. And plus now I’m living in the United States. To have a book come out while I’m living here is a good thing. I hadn’t been back in the United States since 1993.

Q: Do you read in Spanish or in English?

EH: I prefer to read in English. When I read Spanish writers or Latin American writers, I read in Spanish. But when I read German writers, I look to English translations. Two reasons: I read better and faster in English, as my adolescence had been in English; and usually English translations are better. In Spain, translators are very poorly paid, so the translations are not as they should be. Also: In Guatemala, when I went back to university I enrolled in a philosophy course looking for answers. I didn’t know what to do with my life. And in most of Latin America, if you wanted to study philosophy, you had to study literature. It’s a joint degree. So I was forced to take a lit course. Because of university I started reading Spanish, and then English on my own. I remember being really thirsty to read it. I read fiction. It was not poetry, not nonfiction. It was fiction—it was irrationality. I didn’t want anything rational. So I stopped going to my philosophy courses and continued my lit courses.

Q: What’s the next project?

EH: There’s one that I just finished. It grows out of this book. A character in The Polish Boxer continues. It’s set in Israel during my sister’s orthodox wedding. It’s not about that, but it’s set there. It’s a book that goes where this book stops. It’s my identity as a Jew. Or my refusal to accept my identity as a Jew. And it’s called Monastery. That’s the next one. Hopefully after that I’ll go to Poland. I’ve been once, but I need to go a few more times to find the rest of my grandfather’s story.

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