The Polish Boxer, By Eduardo Halfon, trans. Ollie Brock et al

For all its ruses, this novel-memoir holds compelling secrets

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The Independent Culture

The Polish Boxer is the first work of fiction by the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon to be translated in to English (by five different translators). The work sits at the crossroads between a short story, a novel and a memoir.

It is narrated by a writer - Eduardo Halfon – who shares many biographical features with the real author. Both narrator and author are Jewish, educated in engineering, live in Nebraska, have been awarded a Guggenheim grant to ensure a sequel to the book, and teach at university in Guatemala. Are they one and the same person? Does it make a difference to the reader's understanding? This question remains open throughout the story.

Ten loose units – potentially, ten short stories – magisterially blend in to one another to tell the story of the author/narrator's grandfather. He survived time spent in wartime concentration camps thanks to the Polish boxer whom he met in one. It is a story of friendship, fear of violence and self-enlightenment, narrated in a matter-of-fact and yet powerfully moving style.

There is a sophisticated hide-and-seek game played by the author with the reader, which sees the plot submerge and re-emerge in an alternating rhythm. A number of characters frame the main plot, all independent thinkers who choose unconventional lifestyles. For example, Halfon receives enigmatic postcards from Milan Rakic, a Serbian gypsy pianist who forces him to search for clues and answers to his riddles – trying to connect several mysterious locations to the sender. Author and reader alike cannot help fall for the seductive game played by Milan, fascinated by his nomadic lifestyle: "a modern nomad, an allegorical nomad, a postcard nomad".

The Guatemalan author – the real one – believes, like Plato, that "literature is a deceit in which he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive; and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not". We become part of the engaging game of deception in turn. We cannot resist following the author/narrator by thinking of possible ways of deceiving him in return in a fascinating thriller. This is a stimulating and inspiring read.