Is it a novel? A collection of short stories? A novella? A memoir? Poetic prose? A bird? A plane? A superbook? Does it even matter?
No, it doesn’t matter (except, perhaps, to people who love labels and are desperate to categorise everything). And whatever genre/s it is, Eduardo Halfon’s book The Polish Boxer is one of the best texts I’ve read this year.
The blurb on the back of the book reads as follows: ‘A young Eduardo Halfon believed in the lie that the green tattoo on his grandfather’s arm was a phone number. Grown up, a writer and a professor, he believes in literature, in music, in a friend’s digressive, confessional, mythical postcards, in his girlfriend’s graphs of the arcs, plateaus and spikes of her orgasms. He learns the real story of the tattoo, and he thinks and journeys in pursuit of what makes a person and what makes a story.’ This is a start towards describing or explaining the book, but doesn’t exactly cover it.
The Polish Boxer is about a man who is trying to figure out who he is, where he came from, where he is going. It’s about encounters – with oneself and with others – and about exile – self-imposed or forced by others. It covers a lot of territory, both geographical and metaphorical: the protagonist’s grandfather, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, moves to Guatemala, and the protagonist himself eventually leaves Guatemala for Serbia and America. He also leaves Judaism, even if he doesn’t quite leave behind all that it represents (he may throw away his yarmulke, but he doesn’t throw away its symbolism).
Eduardo Halfon, the character and perhaps also the author, although the distinction is quite blurred, is a literature professor, and a scholar. The importance of art, whether in the form of books, drawings, or music, is a key theme in this work, and at times the reader can feel as though s/he is sitting in on a class at a university; this isn’t to say that the text is didactic in any way, because it is not. Rather, it is both personal and somehow universal at the same time, so that a reader can feel that s/he is learning and growing while reading, which is how the best books should make a reader feel.
The book is fascinating in and of itself, but it also has a really interesting backstory in regard to its translation. Daniel Hahn, one of the five translators involved in making this text available in English, explained that several of the translators independently discovered Halfon’s work and translated some of his stories/chapters/sections/whatever they should be called. The translators approached publishers and the book was accepted as a short story collection. The idea was that the translators could each translate a chapter/story or two and they could edit each other’s work.
However, Eduardo Halfon has a habit of reworking his texts, and he in fact expanded one of the original chapters in the published Spanish-language version of this book into a novella. This then changed the shape of the text that was to be translated. So the novella was divided into four sections/stories, and next a new story was added. What this means, in short, is that the translated book called The Polish Boxer is not simply a translated version of the Spanish El boxeador polaco; the two books have some stories/chapters in common, but not all. They thus do not tell the same story. Considering the discussions in the book about literature, including translation, and about the self, which, of course, comes in versions and is translated depending on the context, the story behind the Spanish and English texts is interesting and somehow fitting.
The translators translated their stories/chapters and then they had an intense twelve-day period in which each of them read the entire book in order, editing it. This created a coherent voice in the book; a reader cannot tell who translated which parts or even that different people translated different sections. As Hahn said, the translators attempted to make the text sound the way Halfon would have if he had written in English. Halfon lives in Nebraska and apparently has excellent English skills, and often thinks of his stories in English before writing them in Spanish (which means that one could say that his Spanish works are translations themselves, and that the English translations are really versions of his English originals), then read and edited the English texts himself. Hahn said that Halfon was a great author to work with, and that he has a very clear sense of what he wants from the translations of his texts.
The narrator of The Polish Boxer undermines the tales he tells and shows his own uncertainty in a way that is somewhat unusual in literature, and this mirrors the way Halfon undermines and mixes genres in the book. It’s a hazy text, in that it raises difficult issues but gives no direct, clear answers. Some readers may find the not-knowing uncomfortable, but The Polish Boxer is worth the effort and the possible discomfort. It’s a superbook, whatever that means.