The Polish Boxer
Translated by Daniel Hahn and others
(Bellevue Literary Press)
For the life of me, I can't figure out if The Polish Boxer is a novel, memoir, poem, autobiography, or just a series of essays ---- ten in number --- on such delicate subjects as pirouettes, ghosts, sunsets, smoking, picture postcards, the Balkans, badly made porn, Chekov, Chandler, Tom Sawyer, Don Quixote ... and Thelonius Monk: called here (and, apparently, called by his wife, "Melodious Thunk.")
The facts are well known. When we get to the end of the book, we know that Eduardo Halfon was born in Guatemala City of Polish, Jewish, and perhaps gypsy parentage, that he has lived almost half of his life in the United States, that he is often invited to make presentations at literary conferences, that he is bewitched by gypsies, lovely women and breasts ... and that he once traveled to Serbia to find a gypsy musician by the name of Milan.
He also smokes cigarettes on every page, sometimes twice in one page, worse than any of Salinger's characters, or those Bogart types in the movies of the forties. His incessant smoking is such that we can predict his future (if this is really him and not some half-witted Halfon doppelgänger): that he will die an awful death from pulmonary emphysema, as, too, will all his various friends and lovers who smoke as viciously (and as often) as he does.
It will be a loss, too, for Halfon's writing can be exquisite. Listen to this on his Jewish grandfather who (we learn later) barely escaped with his life from the concentration camp in Poland known as Chelmno:
68752. That was his phone number. That he had it tattooed there, on his left forearm, so he wouldn't forget it. That's what my grandfather told me. And that's what I grew up believing. In the 1970s, telephone numbers in Guatemala were five digits long.
A child's belief. An old man's kind deceit. Polish Boxer is filled with stories of people who are out to fool us, steal from us, give us love, hypnotize us, scandalize us, and then die or disappear. Like the author. Or his friend Milan Rakic (with an acute accent on the "c" --- my machine can't handle that; vowels yes, consonants no).
Milan, the gypsy pianist, gives a concert in the ruins of San José el Viejo, in Antigua (not the island in the West Indies, but the city in Guatemala). Milan is playing Rachmaninoff, and "I thought the music was exactly like a churning swarm of doves or parakeets or blue Amazonian cockatoos flying gently along, screeching with a precise logic that from afar seems so chaotic, so bold, so movingly fortuitious."
Then, after a pause, there is another "forceful, energetic piece:"
I thought I heard --- briefly, from a long way down, and as if tangled up in lots of other chords --- a number of Thelonious Monk's syncopated melodies. Strange, I know. I thought I heard "Straight, No Chaser" and then "Trinkle, Trinkle" and then "Blue Monk" and later maybe even a small segment of "Epistrophy."
"Very far off. You might almost say subliminally, but not even that. Segments too fleeting to pin down, I suppose, but clear enough (within that labyrinth) for a devotee of Monk's works and particularly of his percussive style, of the way in which he used to hammer and punish the keys. Although who knows, really. Sometimes, when confusion reigns, you can only hear the music that's already inside you."
§ § §
Paradox and mystery is the stuff of The Polish Boxer. When Halfon is telling a story --- any of the ten stories here --- there is a mix of innocence and whim and mystery ... delusion, deluded (undiluted) passion. In "The Pirouette," Halfon's trip to Belgrade is to seek out this Milan, this musician who wrote him the story of the boy who wanted to be a Gypsy musician and travel in a Gypsy musician caravan. A man in the forest, "a very large man with purple eyes, dressed in red, with two little horns on his head and a hoof for one of his feet," the man who would make him a Gypsy musician, on one condition,
There's always a condition, right, Eduardito? Always a sacrifice. That's the law of the universe. So the boy, happy and sad, said goodbye to his father forever and said goodbye to his mother forever, and weeping in the forests of Belgrade which were now to become his home, he performed a single pirouette.
And disappeared in the forest.
Deception, illusion, mystery. The Polish Boxer reeks of these, like a story from Poe, or Chekov. Riffs that take us off the path, away from where we are expecting to go. Eduardo Halfon in Belgrade, not knowing a word of Serbian (or Romany), seeking out gypsies, seeking his gypsy musician and, in the process drinking too much (like all the people around him), smoking too much (like all the people around him, even the kids with their black teeth), wondering what to say when everyone around him is speaking their own mystery language, like the Bob Dylan look-alike who tells him, "At schools all over the Balkan region they teach you to draw borders on the map with an inkless pen."
Mystery like when we travel to some place eight hours away on a jet and we get off the plane and go through customs and emerge onto the street ... and there all these mysterious signs in Cyrillic, all these people speaking their mysterious tongue, we don't understand any of it, and we know, even then, that we'll never get it.
In a Belgrade bar with the reporter Slobodin,
The place was pretty full now, mostly with very pale, Gothic-looking Serbian teenagers with piercings hanging from everywhere like stalactites. Slobodin, even though he was more relaxed and had lost his black tie, insisted on keeping up a stoic and indifferent attitude as he sat there biting his nails. Watching him, I had the impression he was someone who had yet to understand that the sea is without doubt the perfect cemetery, and that cowboys always win because they have rifles, and that in fact cowboys always lose because they have rifles, and that honey should be eaten on its own and with your finger and preferably alone, and that the shape of the nipple is far more important than the shape of the breast.
Mystery and passion and the unsaid, the unspoken, the lies that rise up constantly to befuddle us, like do you remember when we were lying there on the beach, totally baffled by what appeared on the horizon ... we didn't get it, no-one did, the mystery that has now bedevilled us for over five hundred years, being
...a legend Lía had told me, studious and devoted to quantum physics as she was. The legend says that as Columbus's fleet was approaching the shores of America, the native Indians didn't see it because they couldn't see it, they literally couldn't see it, since the concept of galleons in full sail was so alien to them, so unimaginable, that it didn't enter into their version of reality, and as such, their minds simply decided not to register it.
And as Halfon, the ephemeral trickster finishes this passage, he quotes the old gypsy woman who told him, at the end of the session, that, in truth, if you really want to know, "doing a pirouette doesn't mean anything to Gypsies."--- Carlos Amantea