Eduar­do Hal­fon; Lisa Dill­man and Daniel Hahn, trans.

  • Review
By – August 20, 2018

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.

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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