Dov Zeller's Reviews > The Polish Boxer

The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon
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Here is another one of those novels in which the narrator is some fictionalized reflection of the novelist himself. And there are moments in which, just as in certain other similarly crafted books by other male authors, I was frustrated by the self-absorbed unreflective masculinity of the narrator and, I imagine, the novelist himself. I cannot say that I like the Halfon in this book, or that I feel too much tenderness toward the writer himself, or his attitude toward the female people in this book. And there is such a captivating journey happening here. Disconnected moments of travel and searching that somehow come together into a distinctive book. The references to music and film are compelling and add a kind of filmic quality and musicality to the novel.

Eduardo Halfon the narrator is a literature professor in Guatemala, and we start in his classroom, in which there is a young, inscrutable male poet who Halfon admires in an almost romantic way. There is also a female student who Halfon is attracted to. Right away there is a kind of Philip Rothian ickiness and I found myself wondering if the professor was going to have an affair with the female student. But, instead he goes searching for the male student and finds him, and finds himself reading and not knowing how to read his student's life (future?) or his own.

In the next chapter, Twaining, Halfon goes to a Twain conference in the U.S. and meets an old man. He misreads the man. A camaraderie grows between them, an almost father-son bond, though it is light and airy and, well, unreadable. There is a lot about reading and misreading people and moments and connections and cultures. At the conference, Halfon is somewhat desperate, though perhaps indifferently so, to make connections between Twain and Cervantes. Maybe he thinks he is the first to do this? The old man insists that it's all been said before. Or some such thing. But it doesn't stop Halfon from continuing on in this vein. So, I suppose this book is a bit of an Odyssey kind of book, or a picaresque of sorts. It invokes the picaresque, at any rate. And each chapter is a different little adventure, seemingly disconnected. Though when we meet Milan Racik in the third chapter, Epistrophy, we never quite put down the idea of him.

Halfon is running away from his own Jewish roots and meets Milan Rakic, a pianist, who is running towards his Gypsy roots. Rakic is a classical musician, but wants to become a Gypsy musician instead. He is living in a terrible bind -- he has a Gypsy father and a Serbian non-Gypsy mother, and so he is frowned upon by Gypsy and non-Gypsy people, and he is accepted nowhere as culturally or racially authentic. He is going through a terrible crisis, trying to feel rooted or find his roots.

Here is an excerpt from Epistrophy:

"Milan began serving himself generous spoonfuls of pepián and caquic, and I, considering him brave to attempt such a mixture, could only think about how some people flee their ancestors, while others yearn for them, almost viscerally; how a few run from their fathers’ world, while others clamor for it, cry out for it; how I couldn’t get far enough away from Judaism, while Milan would never be close enough to the Gypsies. And your father? I asked, sensing the answer. He doesn’t know, he said without looking up, his gaze lost in pieces of carrots and squash and goodness knows what else. He can’t know. Milan cut a chunk out of one of the little chipilín tamales with his fork and then, as if I were some watered-down version of his father, confessed: I want to give up classical music. Neither of us said a word, and we finished the food and the beers in that drawn-out silence, exhausted by all the talk, or maybe just allowing all those words to finally find their mark."

After they part, Rakic sends Halfon a series of mysterious postcards and then, even more mysteriously, disappears. As Halfon searches for him he considers his own emotional and racial/cultural/narrative connections to his familial past. He returns again and again to his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, and the number etched into his arm. When Halfon was a boy, his grandfather insisted it was a telephone number, said he was so forgetful they engraved it on his arm.

Halfon takes up this kind of willfull, joking, and yet emotionally meaningful evasiveness. There is always this kind of evasiveness in the novel. Stories are never quite literal in their meaning, nor are they ever entirely symbolic. The novel goads us to try to distinguish, but we are also teased for trying to make these distinctions. There is a constant play and tension between experience and its representations, and there is a tiny crawl-space in between these two modes for some kind of artistic transcendence -- a small, exquisite and questioning escape from the mundane

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Reading Progress

August 25, 2015 – Shelved
August 25, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
August 25, 2015 – Shelved as: fiction-21st-cen
August 25, 2015 – Shelved as: story-collections
Started Reading
September 1, 2016 – Finished Reading
September 11, 2016 – Shelved as: novel
September 11, 2016 – Shelved as: memoirific
September 11, 2016 – Shelved as: jewish
September 11, 2016 – Shelved as: war-and-fighting
September 11, 2016 – Shelved as: music
September 11, 2016 – Shelved as: education-teaching

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