Shelf Unbound: You wrote the short story “The Polish Boxer,” about your grandfather surviving Auschwitz, as a stand-alone piece and then developed a novel around the story. The novel centers on a Guatemalan literature professor named Eduardo Halfon. What drew you to the idea of a metafictive narrative?
Eduardo Halfon: Before I knew what I was doing—though I’m still never entirely sure what I’m doing—I was already wandering in the midst of that bizarre terrain, lost somewhere between reality and fiction and fiction about fiction, and feeling very comfortable to be there. I guess I’ve always been drawn to theater pieces that tear down the fourth wall, and movie scenes where the character suddenly breaks character and speaks into the camera, and literary works constructed out of echoes and mirrors. No rules that can’t be bent. No margins that are off-limits. No images that can’t later be interpreted differently. No story that is confined to being just a story. Ultimately, we write the books we want to read.
Shelf: Your main character references the classic example of metafiction, Don Quixote, and like Cervantes you end up questioning the truths of your own story and the ability of literature to convey reality. The character Halfon asks, “How has my literature torn through reality?” How do you, the real-life Halfon, answer this question?
Halfon: Perhaps in the same way that the character Halfon would answer it: I see no distinction between reality and literature. Or I don’t care to see one. It’s almost as if that distinction, that dividing line between the two, didn’t exist. As if they were one and the same. As if the real-life Halfon and the character Halfon were both sitting right here trying to answer this question, perhaps taking turns or perhaps both talking at once, in unison. Reality works best through literature. Literature only works if it feels real, and true, and palpable—if you can smell it once it leaves the room. At some point reality tears through literature, and literature tears through reality, and I don’t know which comes first, the chicken or the egg or the chicken. That other Halfon sure does smoke a lot, though.
Shelf: The character Halfon says, “I’m fascinated by internal rather than external revolutions.” Where does your own fascination with internal revolutions come from?
Halfon: It may be because I’ve witnessed first-hand the falseness and hypocrisy of too many political revolutions—mostly in Latin America. Supposed revolutionaries with funny hats and a pseudo-populist discourse who are really only seeking personal gain, whether this be power or wealth or whatever. The only revolutions that I deem honest are those that don’t need to be said, or seen, or even heard about—very personal and internal shakeups that alter someone’s beliefs or perceptions and thus somehow, silently, secretly, also alter the world. Many of the characters in The Polish Boxer are experiencing this, or have experienced it already. The pianist Milan Rakic, the poet Juan Kalel, the academic and Twain expert Joe Krupp, the engineer Eduardo Halfon who’s slowly, and secretly, and perhaps even unknowingly longing to become something else.
Shelf: You are fluent in both Spanish and English. Why do you choose to write in Spanish?
Halfon: There are at least, without some form of psychotherapy, three possible answers to that question. It could be because when I finally discovered books and literature and writing—in my late twenties, and completely by accident—I was living back in Guatemala, after having spent all of my adolescent and university years in the United States, first in Florida, then in North Carolina. A second answer could be because I was born into Spanish, in Guatemala—my family and I left the country in 1981, the day of my tenth birthday. Spanish is my mother tongue, even if English later became more dominant, even if there’s now a stepmother tongue that I love and hate just as much. But a third and sweeter and perhaps even a more truthful answer is that literature, at some level, is a way of returning to my childhood, of revisiting those places and people I grew up with before being thrown out into the world. And my childhood, up until the day of my tenth birthday when we arrived in Miami, was all in Spanish. Writing, for me, is all about a constant searching and digging for roots, and my roots were planted in Spanish mud.
Shelf: And why do you have other people translate your work into English?
Halfon:That’s another question I can’t answer so easily. For one, my literary language is Spanish; that is, I learned how to write literature in Spanish. Not in English. And knowing a language, even fluently, even perfectly, doesn’t automatically make one a writer in that language. Not withstanding Nabokov. Also, in the few pieces of mine that I have tried to self-translate in the past, I’ve taken too many liberties in rewriting them, thus producing not translations, but entirely different versions of the originals—which raises the question of what exactly is a translation, if not a new version. In any case, I’m sure that if I keep reaching I can come up with one or two more very plausible answers. But I might pull a hamstring.
Shelf: You recently filmed your book trailer in Guatemala, asking people young and old to hold up a sign with your grandfather’s number: 69752 (view the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kq1UzG_wmIs). Tell us about the process.
Halfon: At first, I guess all I wanted was to film my grandfather’s number—my grandfather’s tattoo, received in Auschwitz, in 1942—traveling throughout Guatemala, thus combining visually two key elements of the book. But while filming, I kept having the idea that it is was as if my grandfather himself were traveling throughout Guatemala, telling and retelling the story of his number and the Polish boxer to all those people who eagerly picked up the flimsy sheet of cardboard, glanced at the big black digits, and so graciously smiled at the camera. Impossible for me to convey more in a minute and a half.