November 13, 2018

“The Polish Boxer” explores the experience of Auschwitz-survivor

Several factors drew me to Eduardo Halfon’s “The Polish Boxer,” translated by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean (Bellevue Literary Press: $14.95), including its billing (in the industry bible Publishers Weekly and elsewhere) as a semi-autobiographical novel in which the 40-ish author explores the experience of his Auschwitz-survivor grandfather. Moreover, unlike most of the Anglophone writing penned by grandchildren of Holocaust refugees and survivors that I’ve discovered to date, “The Polish Boxer” would present me with a work in translation, as the author was born in Guatemala in 1971. (Halfon immigrated to Florida with his family 10 years later and currently divides his time between Nebraska and Guatemala; he continues to write in Spanish.) 

The book itself is impressive, and I’ll tell you why. But it’s important to offer some comments and clarifications in case you, too, encounter the sound bites and publicity lines about the book that came my way before I read it.

First, if you’re expecting a conventional novel, you’d best adjust those expectations. “The Polish Boxer” comprises 10 titled sections; I’ll call them short stories, because that’s what they are. What the stories share throughout is a first-person narrator, who happens to bear the author’s name and certain other characteristics. (For instance, Eduardo Halfon, the character-narrator, studied engineering in North Carolina, much like Eduardo Halfon, the author.) 

Next, it takes some time for us to meet the narrator’s grandfather and another key character: the titular Polish boxer. That’s because the book begins with “Distant,” in which “Eduardo Halfon” develops a close connection to an exceptional student among the otherwise disaffected collegians in the literature class he teaches. Next, in “Twaining,” the narrator returns to North Carolina for a scholarly conference on the famous American writer. In the third story, “Epistrophy,” the narrator and his girlfriend befriend a Serbian pianist. In “White Smoke,” the narrator meets two young Israeli women who are traveling around Central America. Only once we reach the book’s midpoint do we encounter the title story and hear the grandfather’s voice.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t find hints and references earlier. Attentive readers will catch one line in “Twaining,” for example, when the narrator considers the Polish origins of another scholar at the conference: “I thought of my grandfather and the bottle of whisky we’d drunk together while he told me about Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz and the Polish boxer.” And in the company of the Israelis, one of whom shares a surname with “Eduardo Halfon’s” mother, the narrator muses: “I started to think about the remote possibility that we were related, and I imagined a novel about two Polish siblings who thought their entire family had been exterminated but who all of a sudden find each other after sixty years apart, thanks to the grandchildren, a Guatemalan writer and an Israeli hippie, who meet by chance in a Scottish bar that isn’t even Scottish in Antigua, Guatemala.”

The three stories after “The Polish Boxer” return us to that Serbian pianist and bring us, in fact, to Serbia itself. But what about the grandfather? What about his story? Sorry, reader. You’ll have to wait for the two closing pieces — “A Speech at Póvoa,” in which a Portuguese literary conference inspires the narrator to consider the tale of the Polish boxer anew, and “Sunsets,” in which his grandfather passes away — to truly re-engage there. 

Regardless of whether it is deemed a novel, a story collection or, for all we know, autobiography, this book provides multiple pleasures: clear, intense prose; sharp, laugh-out-loud depictions of classrooms and conferences (perhaps appreciated especially by those readers with academic backgrounds); and the apparent seamlessness of the translations (if you didn’t know that this version is the result of an unusual collaborative effort among several translators, I suspect you wouldn’t guess). 

Then, of course, there’s the fact that the book itself gives a resounding retort to those who might dismiss it as “another” book “about” the Holocaust. This book is different, pure and simple. It’s not simply a matter of the narrator’s repeated (and, frankly, at times off-putting) self-declared distance from his Jewish heritage. It’s not merely that we rarely discover survivor personages, like the narrator’s grandfather, living in Guatemala. Something else is happening here, something linked at least in part to the questions about truth and story that emerge and repeat and link back throughout the book. “The Polish Boxer” may not deliver quite what the marketers and publicists promise. But in a way, it delivers more.