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The Polish Boxer

by Eduardo Halfon

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2233996,109 (3.88)93
"Covers a vast landscape of human experience while enfolding a search for origins: a grandson tries to make sense of his Polish grandfather's past and the story behind his numbered tattoo; a Serbian classical pianist longs for his forbidden heritage; a Mayan poet is torn between his studies and filial obligations; a striking young Israeli woman seeks answers in Central America; a university professor yearns for knowledge that he can't find in books and discovers something unexpected at a Mark Twain conference. Drawn to what lies beyond the range of reason, they all reach for the beautiful and fleeting, whether through humor, music, poetry, or unspoken words. Across his encounters with each of them, the narrator--a Guatemalan literature professor and writer named Eduardo Halfon--pursues his most enigmatic subject: himself."--Back cover.… (more)
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English (38)  French (1)  All languages (39)
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
This book started off with short stories which totally engaged me. Then I realized these were not short stories at all, but part of a novel. However, I subsequently realized that this book was neither short stories nor a novel but somewhere in between. It's the story of a Guatamalan man named Eduardo Halfon. Yes, that is also the author's name. In the end, I realized that this book was all about identity. Was this book about a fictitious character or about the author? Was this book a short story or a novel? Who knows?

Then there is the component of the characters having multiple ethnicities or roles. A student of Eduardo Halfon, who was a college literature professor in Guatamala, was a member of an indigenous tribe in Guatamala. Eduardo Halfon himself had a grandfather who had been a Jewish Holocaust survivor. So did that make the author or the protagonist Jewish? How about the acqaintance of the professor, a Serbian pianist by the name of Milan Rakić. Did this musician discard his Serbian identity to take up his Gypsy roots?

If all of this sounds confusing, it is not. It's all woven into a beautifully written story. I especially liked it because I've been to Guatemala and to Yugoslavia (the part that is now Serbia), and remembered with joy the people and culture of those two vastly different countries. Some of the scenes in this story were about Judaism, but those made me deeply sad. After reading this story, you will know why.

This is such an interesting novel with information slipped in from many categories, such as music, geography, literature, culture, food, and language. I took the opportunity while reading this book to learn more about all of these topics in depth in order to better understand what Halfon was trying to say.

There was also the theme of what is reality and what is story. Were the tattooed numbers on grandfather’s arm his phone number or his tattoo from his imprisonment in Auschwitz? Did he escape his imprisonment there because a Polish Boxer told him what to say, or was it because he had been a carpenter? How much of one’s identity is truth and how much is fiction? There’s lots to think about here.

I see this book as an exploration of identities. There were different ethnicities, different locations, different names, different countries of origin, different religions, different languages, different social statuses, and different professions or roles. And yet, these differences locked together in such an interesting and amazing story! I just loved it all. ( )
  SqueakyChu | May 4, 2021 |
Not sure how I feel about this one, and it's all due to the protagonist. ( )
  KatrinkaV | Dec 30, 2018 |
3.5 stars. The Polish Boxer is a lovely novel-in-stories that looks at the slipperiness of nationality and identity: Halfon crosses lots of geographical and psychological borders, setting his stories (told by Eduardo Halfon) in places like Guatemala, Serbia, and North Carolina. The result is puzzlingly satisfying.

(There's more on my blog, here.) ( )
  LizoksBooks | Dec 15, 2018 |
I had to reread some of this book before I could review - to me it was not an easy read - translated from Spanish to English - there are several, interconnected short stories that seem to be the author's fiction memoir, a Guatemalan literature professor - some serious topics about exploring the meaning of life... ( )
1 vote Jjean7 | May 15, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
“These are the stories of life . . . the question of survival (of both people and cultures) and the way the fictional makes the real bearable and intelligible.”
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Epigraph
"I have moved the typewriter into the next room where I can see myself in the mirror as I write."—Henry Miller
Dedication
First words
I was pacing among them, moving up and down between the rows of desks as if trying to find my way out of a labyrinth. We were reading from a Ricardo Piglia essay. We read about the dual nature of the short story, and it didn’t surprise me, as I looked out, to be met with a sea of faces covered in acne and heartfelt bewilderment.
Quotations
Guatemalan place names never cease to amaze me. They can be like gentle waterfalls, or beautiful cats purring erotically or itinerant jokes—it all depends.
My father died in the field, he said, and that was all he said. There was nothing else to say, I suppose. But the image of his father dying in an orchard, on land he tended that was not his, stayed with me.
There was a strange stone fish next to us, spitting water vertically, halfheartedly, as if gargling.
Her hands looked too small to me. Then they looked like two muddy starfish.  Then like two sad, puffed-up tarántulas locked in a territorial contest neither was ever going to win.
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.
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"Covers a vast landscape of human experience while enfolding a search for origins: a grandson tries to make sense of his Polish grandfather's past and the story behind his numbered tattoo; a Serbian classical pianist longs for his forbidden heritage; a Mayan poet is torn between his studies and filial obligations; a striking young Israeli woman seeks answers in Central America; a university professor yearns for knowledge that he can't find in books and discovers something unexpected at a Mark Twain conference. Drawn to what lies beyond the range of reason, they all reach for the beautiful and fleeting, whether through humor, music, poetry, or unspoken words. Across his encounters with each of them, the narrator--a Guatemalan literature professor and writer named Eduardo Halfon--pursues his most enigmatic subject: himself."--Back cover.

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Book description
The Polish Boxer is a semi-autobiographical tale about roots and origins: the subtly subversive longing for lost identity, the emotionally treacherous territory of cultural exile, and the lingering legacy of history’s atrocities. As the narrator—a Guatemalan literature professor and writer named Eduardo Halfon—travels from small Mayan villages to a Scottish bar in Antigua, and from a Mark Twain conference in North Carolina through the memories of his Polish grandfather’s nightmare at Auschwitz and to a Gypsy neighborhood in Serbia, he encounters people whose stories are as rich and diverse as the languages they speak.

Revelatory, courageous, and full of humor, the narrator’s voice is finely attuned to the ways we use language to make art, conversation, music, and love—revealing the nuances of desire and suffering always just below the surface of human interaction. Despite his protest that “Literature is no more than a good trick . . . making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing,” every word in this slim novel is a testament to literature’s power to reveal truths that range well beyond the boundaries of academic reason.
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