The Pol­ish Boxer

Eduar­do Hal­fon; Hahn, Brock, Dill­man, Bun­stead, McLean, trans.

  • Review
By – January 7, 2013

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.

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Pen­ny Metsch, MLS, for­mer­ly a school librar­i­an on Long Island and in New York City, now focus­es on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy pro­grams in Hobo­ken, NJ.

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