Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon is this week’s Alt.latino guest DJ, and he’s a natural choice; his new book, The Polish Boxer, is a series of semi-autobiographical stories woven through with loving references to jazz and classical music.
Alt.latino host Jasmine Garsd had this to say about The Polish Boxer:
“In my favorite story, Professor Halfon searches throughout Guatemala for Juan Kalel, a brilliant indigenous student who mysteriously dropped out of school. When he finally finds Kalel, they start talking about their mutual love of poetry: ‘Do you know, Halfon, how to say poetry in Cakchikel? Juan asked suddenly … Pach’un tzij, he said … Do you know what it means? he asked, and although I hesitated, I said no… Braid of words, he said.’ “
We thought we’d ask Halfon a few questions about literature and the important books in his life.
What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with literature?
I was 8 or 9 years old when I read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. I read it for school because I had to, because only the students who’d read it would be allowed to see the movie. I remember that it was screened in a small classroom, made dark by thick black drapes hung on the windows, and the girl I liked or maybe loved was sitting right next to me. To impress her as we watched Charlie and Grandpa Joe and old Slugworth, I proceeded to remove a tiny scab from my elbow and let the wound bleed in the dark. She, of course, noticed nothing. My first book was also my first fiasco at love.
What should people read to better understand your work?
I’d like to think that the windows to my work aren’t so much in other books, but in the films of Bergman or Kiarostami, in the music of Monk or Dylan, in the ever-moving yet balanced mobile sculptures of Calder, in the childhood game (always the most serious ones) of hopscotch.
What were you reading, if anything, while you wrote The Polish Boxer?
The Polish Boxer was written slowly, over many years. And, actually, is still being written now. I’m still writing it. I haven’t finished it. Perhaps I’ll never finish it. I’ve just written three new stories or episodes, for instance, which belong to that series, to that narrator’s quest, and which will be included next year in the Brazilian and Italian editions of the book. So every story I read, every film I see, every song I discover, finds its way onto my pages, one way or another. And my pages are never final.
What books or authors would you recommend to help readers understand Guatemala better?
One of the most important Guatemalan novels of the last few decades is Time Commences in Xibalba, written by Luis de Lion, a Kaqchiquel Maya who used Spanish as his literary language. In 1984, Luis de Lion was kidnapped by the military forces governing the country, tortured during 20 days, and then assassinated — information that only came to light 15 years later, in 1999, when his name and the details of his murder appeared in the so-called “Diario Militar,” a secret military document which lists the Guatemalans who were “disappeared” by the military forces between 1983 and 1985. In that list, Luis de Lion is number 135. His novel — as beautiful, sinister, hideous and violent as Guatemala — was published posthumously.
If you were sentenced to a desert island for many years and could take one book, which one would it be?
I could say a blank one, so as to be able to write while alone and deserted, but that sounds facetious. I could say Don Quixote, but that’s a cliché answer for a Spanish writer, and it would probably, over many years of reading it on a white sand beach, drive me to madness. I could say Cathedral, by Raymond Carver, the culmination of a storyteller’s craft, and one of the books that I instinctively read over and over, but I’d perhaps need to pack something a bit more peppy. I could say Tim O’Shei’s How to Survive on a Deserted Island, but that seems like an ill-fated attempt at island humor (plus, I think it’s out of print).