Early on in Mourning, Eduardo Halfon’s powerful, gorgeous new novel, the narrator visits a concentration camp in southern Italy. The original camp, he learns, was destroyed in the 1960s to make room for a highway, but was later reconstructed. The owner of this replica concentration camp believes it is necessary for remembering the Holocaust. Our narrator is sickened, calling it a “theme park dedicated to human suffering.”
The question of what is real and what isn’t, and if such distinctions even can be made, is at the heart of Mourning. The narrator — a Jewish-Guatemalan writer named Eduardo Halfon — encounters and embodies shifting truths. Names and genders change and change back. A Polish woman helps the descendants of Holocaust survivors in order to continue the work of her family, who sheltered Jews during the war, or as a form of repentance because her family turned Jews over to the Gestapo. Books are gifted specifically to remind the receiver of other books.
These are not showy, postmodern tricks designed to frustrate readers. Rather, the questions raised in the novel — such as the veracity of a tragic family tale that our narrator vividly remembers hearing as a boy and that no one in his family can later recall — make us ponder the fact that so much of who we are and what we believe is the product of story, coincidence, and even misunderstanding.
We accompany the eponymous Halfon as he travels from Italy to Warsaw, from suburban Florida to the jungles of Guatemala, examining the stories and secrets of his past, trying to come to an understanding of who he is and how losses large and small shaped his family. As in his previous works, Halfon gives an unforgettable, haunting voice to lesser-known populations of the Jewish diaspora, including Latin American and Lebanese Jews. Mourning shows how the weaving together of diasporic families across cultures and places creates ripples through generations.
Through evocative images and lyrical musings, Halfon considers how stories — true or not — that we hear about the past influence reality. The book suggests that the answers may never be clear but the meaning is in the asking. By probing questions of reality, authenticity, and truth, especially in the face of personal and global tragedies, we can come to better understand ourselves.