Eduardo Halfon: A Speech at Póvoa
Below Sampsonia Way presents a trailer for and an excerpt from the English translation of Eduardo Halfon‘s novel The Polish Boxer, just released by Bellevue Literary Press. It is Halfon’s first novel in English.
A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail notifying me of the subject of this conference, “A Literatura Rasga a Realidade,” “Literature Tears Through Reality,” a very beautiful phrase but one that ultimately left me no more enlightened than I’d been to begin with. The first thing I did, after having spent a few minutes scratching my bald head, was write to Manuela Ribeiro, the director of the Correntes d’Escritas Festival, to solicit her help, and to ask her if the subject was the intersection between literature and reality, or rather the way literature bursts into reality, or what? And she wrote back to me right away: Yes, that’s it. The second thing I did, having seen the names of my fellow speakers, was to write to João Paolo Cuenca, asking him to please explain it to me, this matter of how it is that literature tears through reality. But my Brazilian friend—just as confused or nervous as I was, or perhaps already at work on his own fifteen-minute speech—didn’t take long to reply: I have no idea either. So, later that night, I sat down to watch an Ingmar Bergman movie, hoping to distract myself a little. But when it was over, when I wanted to sleep, the subject of this conference returned to assail me again, and I tossed and turned in my bed. Now desperate, at about five or six o’clock on a very cold morning, my thoughts returned to the Bergman movie and I realized that right there, at the conclusion of the movie, was my answer. That, however, is the ending to my fifteen minutes, and it is best to begin at the beginning.
- Eduardo Halfon
- Eduardo Halfon was born in Guatemala City in 1971. After living in the United States as a child he moved back to Guatemala and served as a professor of literature at the Universidad Francisco Marroquín for eight years. In 2007 the Bogotá Hay Festival listed him as one of the “39 best young Latin American writers.” He now resides in Nebraska.
- His novels include Esto no es ulna pip, Saturno; De cab root; La pirueta; and El boxeador polaco, which is being released in English in October 2012 as The Polish Boxer by Bellevue Literary Press (US) and Puskhin Press (UK).
I suspect that my insomnia was provoked by the subject of reality—even though at that time, I should add, I was also suffering great anxiety in an attempt to obtain a tourist visa for Belgrade, going through bureaucratic procedures of kafkaesque proportions in order to visit that agreeable city where, before coming here to Póvoa do Varzim, I’ve just spent a few days in pursuit of a ghost.
What is reality? I don’t know. How do I conceive of reality? No idea. But fortunately I understood that this wasn’t to be an epistemological conference, and so, thank God, I was able to discard immediately any reflections on our awareness of reality. And so I came to this strange verb: rasga. I presumed, stumbling through the darkness, that the verb rasgar means the same in Portuguese as in Spanish, and setting aside its musical sense—in Spanish, to rasgar a guitar is to strum it—I focused on the act of breaking something, cutting it, ripping it, tearing it into pieces. I can remember imagining three things. One: someone tearing (rasgando) a piece of cloth. Two: a broken (rasgado) car window. And three: the noise made when you tear (rasga) a sheet of paper in half. With these images as my starting point (when I write, or when I want to understand anything, which is almost the same thing, I always start from images), I asked myself how it was possible for literature to rasgar reality, to break or tear it. As though reality were a piece of cloth? As though reality were a car window? As though reality were a sheet of paper? And it occurred to me that the only possible way of understanding something, or at least of making an attempt or some movement toward understanding it, is to turn to one’s own experience. Like so: What link is there, in my experience as a writer, between literature and reality? Or like so: How has my literature torn through reality? The process is always one from a hot furnace to the finger to the brain to the scream. In other words, by induction.
I thought then, inevitably, of the story of my Polish grandfather in Auschwitz. A story that, until he told it to me, nobody in my family knew. When he arrived in Guatemala after the war, he clammed up completely. He refused to talk about the time he’d spent in the various concentration camps. But a few years ago, six or seven years, perhaps, I somehow dared to ask him if I could interview him. To learn a bit, to find out, to leave some record (not to mention evidence) so that I could perhaps then tell the story myself. And my grandfather, with absolute calm, said sure, gladly. We agreed on the day and the time, and I managed to borrow a video camera. I filmed him talking—for the first time in almost sixty years—about his capture at Łódź while he was playing dominoes with some friends, about the last time he saw his family, about his passage through the various concentration camps, about the Polish boxer who, he told me, saved his life in Auschwitz. And this short, simple story of the Polish boxer seemed powerfully literary to me. It goes something like this. My grandfather is in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He accepts the gift from a new prisoner of a twenty-dollar gold coin, which he will use to get more food, more soup. They find him out, beat him, and send him to Block Eleven at Auschwitz, to be shot against the already-infamous Black Wall. That night—the night before being put on trial—he’s thrown into a cell filled with people, and there he meets a Polish boxer. They speak the same language. They’re from the same town. The Polish boxer is still alive because the German soldiers like watching him box, presumably (with a certain amount of license) rather like watching a cockfight. An old, experienced resident of Auschwitz’s Block Eleven, the Polish boxer spends the whole night telling my grandfather what to say and what not to say at his trial the following day. Training him, as it were, with words. And the following day, my grandfather says and doesn’t say what the Polish boxer told him to say and not to say, and this does indeed save him. The end. I liked this story straight away, perhaps for its simplicity or its apparent simplicity, perhaps for what it implies about the use of words for salvation, for our salvation. I already had the reality—I even had it on film. And now I needed to bring it over into literature. But how to recount this reality? From what point of view? From what moment in time? I tried in many different ways, and using many different narrative techniques, until finally, six or seven years after I’d walked away with this story under my arm (as a friend of mine would describe it in his apartment on Conde de Xiquena), I managed to write a piece in which a grandson interviews his grandfather about his experiences in Auschwitz while he’s looking at the five green numbers on his arm and they’re drinking a bottle of whiskey together. And that was it. All done. I had managed to carry reality over into literature. I had managed, through literature, to penetrate reality. All lovely and perfect and smelling of printer’s ink. Until recently. One morning, I opened the Sunday supplement of a Guatemalan newspaper, and even before I’d managed to take my first sip of coffee, I saw a photo of my grandfather on his butter-colored leather sofa, showing those five pale numbers and saying in an interview that he’d been saved in Auschwitz thanks to (I had to read it twice) his skills as a carpenter.
What? A carpenter? What skills as a carpenter? What happened to the Polish boxer, to Scheherazade in disguise?
And that’s it.
Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a sorcerer might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing. Or perhaps literature needs to construct one reality by destroying another—something that in a very intuitive sense my grandfather already knew—that is, by destroying and then reconstituting itself from its own debris. Or perhaps literature, as my old friend from Brooklyn used to argue, is no more than the precipitate, zigzagging, rambling discourse of a stutterer.
It was something like this that I was reasoning out and brooding over during that cold, sleepless dawn, just about to understand or at least to find something important, when all of a sudden, now smoking a cigarette in bed, I remembered Ingmar Bergman.
The movie is called Skammen in Swedish, Shame in English, Vergonha in Portuguese. And it’s about the experience of a musician couple who take refuge on an island during the Swedish civil war, but being Bergman, it’s also much more than that. It goes something like this. Having lost everything—their house, their belongings, their marriage, their dignity, even their shame—the couple board a boat full of refugees trying to flee the island and the war. The boat’s engine fails and they are stranded in the middle of the sea. They share the last pieces of bread, the last lumps of sugar, the last drops of water. One man kills himself. The boat gets trapped—in a marvelously horrific image— surrounded by a mass of floating corpses. And in the final scene, the beautiful Liv Ullmann, in a laconic, lost voice that anticipates her death, tells us of a dream she’s had. She says: I had a dream. I was walking down a lovely street. On one side, the houses were white, with large arches and columns. On the other side, there was a shady park. Between the trees ran a brook of dark green water. At last I reached a high wall covered in roses. And a plane passed by and set fire to the roses. But nothing happened, because it was a beautiful image. I looked at the water and saw the reflection of how the roses burned. I was carrying a little girl in my arms. Our daughter. She hugged me close. I could even feel her mouth against my cheek. The whole time I knew there was something I mustn’t forget. Something that somebody had told me. But I forgot it.
That is exactly what literature is like. As we write, we know that there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn’t forget it. But always, without fail, we do.
Excerpt from The Polish Boxer, by Eduardo Halfon. Translated by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Tom Bunstead and Anne McLean. Copyright 2012 by Eduardo Halfon. Used by permission of Bellevue Literary Press. All rights reserved.