Saturday, June 1, 2013

Nicotine, Gypsies, Postcards, and Polish Boxers

Eduardo Halfon: The Polish Boxer

"I bit down lightly on my cigarette..."
"I lit another cigarette..."
"I bought a pack of cigarettes and, after lighting one, went back out to the street...."
"....we began a liturgy of smoking...."

When I was in college I smoked Old Golds--all the pseudo-intellectuals at my college smoked Old Golds.  We called them "ogs" and would congregate in the smoking room of the library with our well-read and fully misunderstood books of Kierkegaard and Heidegger and Nietzsche (I was majoring in philosophy that year) and say things like--"Can I bum an og?" 

A few years later, in the Army, I'd open my little olive drab box of MRE's ("meals, ready to eat") and pull out a can (I hoped) of peaches and a three-pack of stale Lucky Strikes, crumbly tobacco packed away since the Korean War but something to do on smoke breaks. 

Of course, in grad school I smoked a pipe--Balkan Sobranie--powerful black tobacco that burned my tongue but went well with black coffee and marathon readings of the 'Pentagon Papers.'  Those were the days.

Many years later, having long before given up tobacco, a former friend offered me a Cuban cigar in The Guards Bar on M Street in Georgetown.  I smoked it while urbanely sipping a glass of Scotch, then walked outside and vomited on the sidewalk.

And that, dear reader, is the story of my smoking career.

There's a lot of smoking in The Polish Boxer, and I only mention such a trivial fact to drive home the point that Eduardo Halfon's first novel to be translated into English (and his ninth over all) is textured--complexly, intricately--around rituals, habits of thought and behavior symbolized, on the one hand, by the narrator's ("Eduardo Halfon") lighting up a Camel, but also by his evocation of his grandfather's life (a Polish-Guatemalan Jew and Holocaust survivor), his girlfriend's orgasms, the lives of gypsies, and the music of Saban Bajramovic.  I believe The Polish Boxer is a novel--a single unified narrative--but it is also, and magically, a collection of short stories, each one standing on its own thematic feet, wreathed in smoke and addictive prose:

"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." ("A Speech at Povoa")

I always feel a little sad these days when I see a cluster of people standing (far) outside their place of employment puffing away, looking furtive and sinful.  So far has the stigmatization of smoking gone that my first thought upon seeing such a group is (forgive me)--what losers.  But then again, imagine Rothko with a carrot stick or a lollipop in his mouth--no, you only see the genius of abstract expressionism with a cigarette--and you think, or I do anyway, of all those wonderful contemplative hours of quietly puffing away (in your study, in a cafĂ©, in a bookstore or library), as you punctuated your thoughts with the innocuous ritual of lighting up.

The character and probably the man Eduardo Halfon is the sort of wise-guy intellectual I've always admired--the guy who, like Saul Bellow or Bob Creeley (himself a prodigious smoker), Julio Cortazar (ditto) or David Foster Wallace (he dipped) bristles with ideas but isn't above making a joke, laughing at the pieties of the fatuous and smug--Mark Twain (who figures prominently in The Polish Boxer and loved cigars) is the touchstone for this sort of figure, our own Voltaire.  Halfon drew me in at once with his irreverent view of the teaching profession ("Distant") and by the time he'd attended an academic conference--where the only smoking room available was the handicapped suite--and described Milan Rakic's bizarre concertizing (in "Epistrophy"), I was enraptured by the book and wishing, God help me, that I had a cigarette.

And then, of course, there is the fact that Halfon, though mostly educated in the US and now a professor someplace in Nebraska, is in fact a Guatemalan Jew with Polish ancestors.  The complexity of his background is also at the heart of The Polish Boxer, especially manifested in the hidden life of his grandfather, the secret of whose survival links the disparate tales of the book.  In fact, if I were to be asked what the book is "about," I would probably mention that more than anything else Halfon has poetically rendered the ways in which people endure the hostile circumstances of their lives.   Guatemalan indios, gypsies, Polish Jews, Yugoslavians, chain-smoking writers, one and all share the secret of the Polish Boxer, the words one must speak or not speak in order to go on living.  The cryptic postcards that Eduardo receives from all over the world (from Milan, the pianist) are a code that Eduardo must crack ("Ghosts") just as he must quietly elicit from his grandfather the meaning of the numbers 69752 inscribed on the old man's wrist (he's told his grandson this is his phone number).  In the same way that Halfon's students are asked to decipher the codes hidden in famous stories, Halfon searches for the meaning of the postcards, the gypsy songs, the impossible survival of Oitze (his grandfather) in Auschwitz.  Best of all, we believe him, we take Halfon at his word--The Polish Boxer is a story collection, a novel, a memoir:

"I want readers to have a visceral experience. I want them to believe what is going on in the story, that all this really happened. So if the author Eduardo Halfon has the same name as the narrator in the story then the reader is lulled into thinking that the events in the story are probably real. In writing them, they all start off as real in some way, and then they go somewhere else, somewhere less real, but just as true. Or perhaps even more so.’*

I haven't been able to get this Creeley poem out of my mind since I finished The Polish Boxer:

As I sd to my   
friend, because I am   
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his   
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for   
christ’s sake, look   
out where yr going.
For god's sake, Eduardo is telling us, watch where you're going.   

*I happened upon a fine interview with Halfon in the on-line magazine 3 a.m.  It turns out that Halfon isn't much of a smoker after all.

The Polish Boxer is published by the good people at Pushkin Press and translated by a committee of five.  All of the rest of Halfon's work is untranslated and one hopes this situation will be rectified soon.

George Ovitt (6/1/13)


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