Eduar­do Hal­fon; Lisa Dill­man, Daniel Hahn, trans. 

  • Review
By – November 14, 2022

Eduar­do Hal­fon is a mas­ter of lithe, haunt­ing semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­els. His lat­est is Can­ción, an engross­ing sto­ry of Jew­ish dias­po­ra, secrets, and the multi­gen­er­a­tional impacts of vio­lence. As in his oth­er work, he sheds light on the less­er-known Latin Amer­i­can and Ladi­no Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions with poignant characterization.

Eduar­do Halfon’s epony­mous nar­ra­tor also shares a name with his grand­fa­ther, whose shad­ow hangs over the sto­ry. Our nar­ra­tor is end­less­ly curi­ous about him: a not-quite Lebanese Jew (he was raised in and left Beirut when it was still Syr­ia), a Guatemalan, a busi­ness­man, a patri­arch, and a kid­nap­ping vic­tim. Hal­fon is par­tic­u­lar­ly drawn to the 1967 kid­nap­ping by gueril­las in the Guatemalan Civ­il War. As a child, he wit­nessed sol­diers vis­it­ing his grand­par­ents’ state­ly home to inform his grand­fa­ther that they’d found the kid­nap­pers. Though this was good news, the vis­it ter­ri­fied the many fam­i­ly mem­bers who were present for it. The details of the ordeal fell under a veil of secre­cy and child­hood misunderstandings.

Our nar­ra­tor is deter­mined to learn more. He trav­els to Japan for a Lebanese writ­ers’ con­fer­ence, where his inves­ti­ga­tion yields a com­plex — if per­haps not ful­ly com­plete — por­trait of his grand­fa­ther. The nov­el moves between Japan, Halfon’s rec­ol­lec­tions of his inves­ti­ga­tion, and hazy child­hood mem­o­ries. The won­der­ful end­ing rev­els in this mix of know­ing and unknow­ing, hold­ing onto the aware­ness that iden­ti­ty and sto­ry tran­scend labels and even nationalities.

Along the way, we encounter atroc­i­ties and fig­ures of the Guatemalan Civ­il War, includ­ing Can­ción, one of the kid­nap­pers. His name has dual mean­ing: song” and butch­er.” In Can­ción the char­ac­ter and Can­ción the book, the dual­i­ties of beau­ty and hor­ror, humor and dark­ness, and mem­o­ry and truth all knock against each oth­er to reveal the long-last­ing effects of war, loss, and silence.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

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