In the first lecture to his freshman class, Eduardo Halfon, professor of literature — no coincidence that his name is the same as that of the author — says “a story always tells two tales.” As they study works by some of literature’s giants, they must learn to “read past the words.” From Guatemalan students, to Israelis, to a Gypsy/Serbian pianist, to the rabbi at his grandfather’s deathbed, on every page, at every literal bend in the road, we, too, must read past the words.
The plot centers around the Serbian/Gypsy pianist on tour in the Americas. Halfon is fascinated by the musician’s desire to return to his Gypsy roots. A mysterious trail of messages on postcards feeds Halfon’s compulsion to go and find his friend back in Serbia, happily reintegrated into Belgrade’s Gypsy community, playing, at last, the music of his soul. Serbia is cold and dark. The history of the land looms large. The fate of gypsies is sadly familiar. Is his friend there, or not? Coming full circle, the professor confronts his own reality: Jew or not? Does his own answer begin or end with the story of the Polish Boxer, hero of the Holocaust survival story told to him by his grandfather? Is this the defining tale of the writer’s life? What is his or any reality?
At the end of this mesmerizing journey, Eduardo Halfon has an epiphany: “And it occurred to me that the only possible way of understanding something, or at least of making an attempt or some movement toward understanding it, is to turn to one’s own experience. Like so: What link is there in my experience as a writer, between literature and reality?”
Do Halfon’s experiences satisfy this explanation? The answer, or at least the considerations, are in this beautiful and provocative novel. It is Halfon’s first novel to be published in English. This is a wonderful read which begs to be re-read in whole or in part.