In Conversation: Eduardo Halfon

All of my books are intimately related, like brothers who live far away.

The last time Eduardo and I talked, in July of 2015, days before he presented his latest book, Signor Hoffman, we were both weeks away from coming to New York City, though each for different reasons. “You got a Fulbright to do your MFA? That’s impressive,” he said, smiling. “You’ll be the writer-in-residence at Baruch College?” I said. “I’m not sure what that means, but it also sounds impressive.”

Eduardo and I had met in Guatemala, near his house, at a brand new mall that, according to him, was now between local residents and a lush view of tall trees, misty mountains, and coppery sunrises. Or sunsets? Within five minutes he dismantled most of the questions I had prepared for the interview.

I had come to the meeting assuming that Eduardo’s books, which are mostly based on his family and personal life, were the result of an elaborate architecture. I had imagined Eduardo hanging an intricate map on a wall and pulling strings from one side to the other to connect the stories, the names, the places. And, assuming that he had orchestrated this multiverse since El boxeador polaco (The Polish Boxer, translated by Thomas Bunstead, Lisa Dillman, Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, and Anne McLean for Bellevue Literary Press in 2012) came out in Spain in 2008, I asked if he had used that book to sow the seeds, the characters he would return to in his following books (like Milan Rakic, a Serbian pianist who later made his comeback in The Pirouette; or Tamara, a hippie from Israel, that later returned in Monastery). He answered with a resounding no. “I never know what I’m going to write next,” he said. 

“Will we see Madame Maroszek, from “Oh Ghetto My Love”, again?” I insisted.

“I don’t know. Truly.”

Two years later Eduardo published his latest novel, Duelo, based on the mysterious death of his uncle Salomón—a character whom, after more than ten books, Eduardo had never mentioned once. After that original interview, and the unexpected appearance of Salomón, I imagine Eduardo now as a sort of deskbound historian, and his characters as aimless nomads that stumble into his house, asking for recognition.

Published this month in English by Bellevue Literary Press, and in truly Halfonesque style, Mourning is brimming with subtle mystery, inquisitiveness, oddity, coincidence, and melancholy. In it, we travel with Eduardo from Lake Amatitlán—the presumed place of Salomón’s death—to Plantation, Florida—where Eduardo and his family relocated during the peak of the Guatemalan Civil War—all the way to Sachsenhausen—where Eduardo’s grandfather, along with other Jewish prisoners, might have sabotaged German warplanes during WWII—and finally all the way back to Lake Amatitlán.

Beautifully translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn, Mourning is a highly entertaining tragedy, a fascinating page-turner based on the fractured narrative of a fractured family, projected by Halfon’s vivid imagery and musicality. The English version of the book includes two additional stories or chapters, “Oh Ghetto My Love”—set in Łódź, the city where Eduardo’s grandfather was from—and “Signor Hoffman”—set in Calabria, Italy, where Eduardo was giving a lecture on his grandfather’s story—both of which tie the book nicely to Halfon’s Genesis, The Polish Boxer.

Eduardo’s book and his characters are still bound by mystery, by not knowing, by the no sé, and by eventful causalities that link his work with fascinating precision. And the playful way his books get translated and later assembled, like the way Duelo became Mourning, powerfully demonstrates that ductility.

Mourning_Final copy

José García Escobar (JGE): Mourning, the English translation of Duelo, includes two additional stories from your previous books, “Signor Hoffman” and “Oh Ghetto My Love.” Why is this? How do you think these two stories complement Mourning?

Eduardo Halfon (EH): All of my books in translation work this way. I add and subtract stories as needed or as we—each editor and myself—see fit. That is, every one of my books in translation is absolutely original. In the case of Mourning, I thought that these three pieces would work very well together. Each of them is an independent story, but together they become more than just a series of three stories. In other words, their sum is not three. But this only works because all of my stories are really chapters or episodes in the life of one man, one narrator, who shares my name and my biography. I write each of them as an independent story, yes, but that story then fits into a larger narrative, almost like episodes in a series or like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. “Oh Ghetto My Love,” for example, the second piece in the book, has also been published by itself, in book form: in the US a few years ago as an ebook, last year in Italy, and just recently in Spain as an illustrated volume. We should write every story as if that story is an entire book, as if it’s the last story we’ll ever write.


JGE: Can you describe your involvement in the translation of this book?

EH: Probably too involved, if you ask my translators, and not involved enough, if you ask me. The result, I think, after some healthy debating, is an average of the two. But this only happens when I’m translated into English, of course, a language that since childhood, growing up in South Florida, has become my stronger language, even though I only write in Spanish. I think in English. I know what I want to say in English. But for some reasons the words hit the page in Spanish.

JGE: The last time we talked, in 2015, days before the release of Signor Hoffman in Guatemala City, you mentioned that your writing comes from not knowing—from the no sé. Did you know back then that you were going to write about Salomón? If not, when and how did it happen?

EH: I never know what I’m going to write next. I don’t plan the stories, and I don’t look for them, either. The story of Salomón just crept up on me. I remember I was in Guatemala in 2015 and we had a conversation with my father about the death of Salomón, his older brother, or he who would have been his older brother but whom he never met. He died as a child, before my father was born. When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I did was write the first page of that story, that exact paragraph. I didn’t know why yet. I had no idea what it was going to become, if anything. I just needed to get it down. But I immediately liked it. Or better said, I immediately knew there was more there. And so I kept going.

JGE: How come Salomón didn’t appear before? Had you purposefully kept him out of your writing so that it would come as a surprise in this book?

EH: I think he had purposely stayed away from me, so as to surprise me with his story. When I write, I also need to be surprised, and moved, and overwhelmed. If not, the writing process becomes too mathematical, too calculating.

JGE: Despite the fact that this is a novel, each chapter has a type of condensed brevity found in your short stories. I know that you consider yourself a short story writer, not a novelist. How do you approach a novel? Is it always from the succinctness of short stories?

EH: I’m not a novelist. I only write stories. Sometimes those stories are five or ten pages long, and sometimes they’re a hundred. But they’re all written as stories. My intentionality isn’t that of a novelist. I don’t think of them as chapters or episodes, but as stories. Their intensity. Their aesthetic. Their ending. Their structure. All very different from a novelist’s. That said, if a reader or a publisher wants to see them as chapters, they’re not wrong.

JGE: I get the feeling that this book, Mourning, is closer to Mañana nunca lo hablamos (Tomorrow We Never Did Talk About It) than to The Polish Boxer—from which most of your writing sprouts. Do you agree?

EH: I think the narrative voice is closer to The Polish Boxer. It is, in fact, that same voice. But the idea of childhood, of searching for answers in my own childhood, is in Mañana nunca lo hablamos, a book that ends at the moment of a boy’s life when he and his family are leaving Guatemala for the United States, which is the moment where Mourning picks up. In any case, all of my books are intimately related, like brothers who live far away.Tomorrow


JGE: I think young Eduardo’s (the character) curiosity—found in most of Mourning, throughout Mañana nunca lo hablamos, and in The Polish Boxer—is the seed of adult Eduardo’s almost journalistic life—found in The Pirouette, Monastery, and so on. Did you persistently work on this connection?

EH: Not only did I not work on this connection, I hadn’t even seen it until now that you mention it. Perhaps that’s something that I do have in common with my narrator, that sense of curiosity, as you call it. He’s searching for something, though he doesn’t know exactly what, and thus pushes me to search with him. But what we find is usually not what we’re looking for. Mourning, in the end, is not a story about Salomón’s death.

JGE: Is it fair to say that your writing, which you argue is based on not knowing, is also founded on curiosity?

EH: I think curiosity is too small a word. Curiosity makes you turn on the television, open a book, scroll through your Facebook feed. It doesn’t move you to write. It doesn’t make you sit down for months or years to build a world so personal and intimate and then hope that others join you there. I don’t know what that force is that moves you to write. But it isn’t curiosity.

JGE: I also have the feeling, whenever I’m reading your books, that they are bound by elements of journalism. How much influence, if any, have investigative journalism and detective stories had in your writing? Adult Eduardo (also the character) seems, to me, to be a type of private investigator.

EH: Thomas Pynchon calls himself “a dedicated sucker” for literary chase scenes. The chase, in his literature, in his writing, is vital. I’ve often thought about that when I’m writing. I don’t write or even read many detective stories or investigative journalism. But in my fiction I’m always chasing something. Or my narrator is always chasing something, wanting to solve something, almost like a private investigator. But a very bad one. He always fails.

JGE: We’ve repeatedly talked about the not knowing, and how your writing comes from not knowing. Not knowing what you’re going to write next. Not knowing which of your characters is going to come back. But one question I’ve had since the last time we talked is: Do you know if the rest of your writing career is going to be based on your family and your life experiences?

EH: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been able to play the piano by ear. I never learned how to read sheet music, unfortunately. But I can play most songs after hearing them once. However, if I try thinking about that song while I’m away from the piano, I can’t play it. Or even if I’m sitting at the piano and try to think about that song, I can’t play it. But if I relax and almost close my eyes, my fingers know what to do, where to go on the keyboard, almost instinctively. I write in a similar way. I can’t figure out a story by thinking about it in the shower or in the car. I don’t know where my stories come from or where I’m headed with them or what I’ll write next, if anything. I just half close my eyes and let my fingers find the keys.

Photo credit: Victoria Castañeda

Eduardo Halfon was born in Guatemala City, moved to the United States at the age of ten, went to school in South Florida, studied industrial engineering at North Carolina State University, and then returned to Guatemala to teach literature for eight years at Universidad Francisco Marroquín. Named one of the best young Latin American writers by the Hay Festival of Bogotá in 2007, he is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Roger Caillois Prize, and José María de Pereda Prize for the Short Novel. He is the author of fourteen books published in Spanish and three novels published in English: The Polish Boxer, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and finalist for the International Latino Book Award; Monastery, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award; and Mourning. Halfon currently lives in Nebraska and frequently travels to Guatemala.

José García Escobar is a journalist, fiction writer, translator, and former Fulbright scholar from Guatemala. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in New York City. His writing has appeared in The Evergreen ReviewGuernica, and Words Without Borders. He is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for the Central American region and currently works as a journalist in Plaza Pública.

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