Non­fic­tion

Monastery

Eduar­do Hal­fon; Lisa Dill­man and Daniel Hahn, trans.
  • Review
By – November 20, 2014

Sea­soned Holy Land tourists will sym­pa­thize with Eduar­do as he blind­ly boards a sheirut, a com­mu­nal Israeli air­port taxi, learn­ing the hard way of its risks of delay. But as Eduardo’s nar­ra­tion con­tin­ues, his frus­tra­tions grow more con­tentious. Eduar­do flies to Israel because his abrupt­ly devout” sis­ter announced her plans to wed an ultra-Ortho­dox man there. And as Eduar­do explores the land, his furies regard­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and rit­u­al explode. 

Eduar­do is increas­ing­ly offend­ed as he explores famous ultra-Ortho­dox pock­ets of Jerusalem. It is clear that Eduardo’s scru­ples regard­ing his sister’s deci­sions are not flip­pant or lazy. Eduar­do respects the unique tra­jec­to­ry of each of his grand­par­ents, some of whom are Arab Jews. Sick­ened by big­otry and proud of his fam­i­ly, he pur­sues a lifestyle to sat­is­fy his adven­tur­ous and lust­ful spirit.

This adven­tur­ous­ness takes us far from Jerusalem, all around the globe, as we fol­low Eduardo’s picaresque path of mem­o­ries. Guatemala, Eduardo’s coun­try of ori­gin, pro­vides what is per­haps the novel’s most shock­ing ter­rain. The nar­ra­tor nav­i­gates some phys­i­cal­ly filthy locales, where Hal­fon ren­ders scenery in neat and mem­o­rable detail. Native cus­toms, dia­logue and food come com­pa­ra­bly alive as Eduar­do moves into more inti­mate local set­tings, where he meets his cen­tral love inter­est. When it’s time to go, Eduar­do learns that Ben Guri­on isn’t the only air­port with pecu­liar practices.

Each sub­se­quent des­ti­na­tion gives us deep­er appre­ci­a­tion for Eduardo’s thought­ful­ness and the life expe­ri­ences that bring him to his present, angry state in Israel. In a short span, the read­er is brought from Harlem’s jazz scene to a Ger­man sub­ma­rine base on the coast of France. Each mem­o­ry explores love, grief, and writ­ing through Eduardo’s care­ful cog­i­ta­tion. Eduar­do is intel­li­gent and authen­tic: his thoughts, on Judaism and in gen­er­al, are at times metic­u­lous­ly con­sid­ered, and at times raw, blunt, and bitter.

Unex­pect­ed­ly, it is amid an erot­ic escapade that Eduar­do affords us clear­est expo­sure to his com­plex engage­ment with ques­tions of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Eduar­do finds him­self on the Dead Sea beach, fre­quent­ly dis­tract­ed by his biki­ni-clad inter­locu­tor. Here, he dis­cuss­es his rich­ly Jew­ish dreams and his exam­ined sen­ti­ments regard­ing con­ceal­ing one’s Jew­ish­ness. Eduardo’s head nav­i­gates ques­tions all too relat­able, with a mind notably sen­si­tive, prag­mat­ic, and tor­ment­ed. He ques­tions how one should man­age Jew­ish­ness vis-à-vis indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, espe­cial­ly when the for­mer may threat­en your life.

Relat­ed content:

Ben­jamin Abramowitz is an MFA stu­dent at Sarah Lawrence Col­lege and Fic­tion Edi­tor of the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Con­struc­tion.

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