Monastery – Eduardo Halfon – translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

…all our journeys are really one single journey, with multiple stops and layovers. That every journey, any journey, is not linear, and is not circular, and it never ends. That every journey is meaningless.

 

Welcome to the rubber-stamp filled passport of Eduardo Halfon, a work that opens with a Franz Kafka epigraph “A cage went in search of a bird.” Our book, “Monastery”, could be loosely described as eight short stories, or it could be a novel moving through numerous countries. The protagonist is Eduardo Halfon himself, world citizen, writer, a Guatemalan Jew from Polish stock, searching the planet for himself.

 

The book opens with Halfon landing at Tel Aviv airport, with his younger brother, to attend his sister’s wedding. She is a practicing Jew and Eduardo is not too happy about the upcoming wedding. At the airport he meets Tamara, an ex-girlfriend, who now works for Lufthansa. Our opening gives us the insight into Halfon’s Jewish family history:

 

Thinking about my paternal grandfather. From Lebanon. He and his seven brothers and sisters had fled Beirut at the turn of the twentieth century (my great-grandmother died during their escape and was buried in some Jewish cemetery in Corsica). Curiously, employing what might have been some commercial survival strategy, they decided that each borther and sister would settle in a different city: in Paris, in Guatemala City, in Mexico City, in Cali, in Lima, in Havana, in Manhattan, in Miami (the great-uncle I remember best – handsome, an opera singer, friend or member of Miami’s Italian Mafia – served time in a Florida jail for being a gigolo). My Lebanese grandfather, after spending a few years in Paris, was the one who then saved his brother in Guatemala from bankruptcy. That was where he met my grandmother. That was where he opened a store in El Portal del Comercio. That was where he built his palace.

 

Besides not wanting to attend his sister’s wedding (why did he fly all the way to Tel Aviv if he wasn’t going to attend?) he is struggling with his connection to the Orthodox Jewish faith, he is struggling with an identity of any description, he’s a world citizen, not Guatemalen, not Polish, not Lebanese, a wanderer searching to fill the empty void, and as he writes this all down, we are along for the journey:

 

She asked where I was from. I finished chewing a mouthful, my tongue stunned by the chiltepe, and said I was Guatemalan, just like her. She smiled politely, perhaps suspiciously, perhaps thinking the same thing I was thinking, and turned her eyes up toward the cloudless sky. I don’t know why I always find it hard to convince people, to convince myself even, that I’m Guatemalan. I suppose the expect to see someone darker and squatter, someone who looks more like them, to hear someone whose Spanish sounds more tropical. And I never pass up any opportunity to distance myself from the country either, literally as well as literarily. I grew up abroad. I spend long stretched of time abroad. I write about it and describe it from abroad. As though I was a perpetual migrant. I blow smoke over my Guatemalan origins until they become dimmer and hazier. I feel no nostalgia, no loyalty, no patriotism – despite the fact that, as my Polish grandfather liked to say, the first song I learned to sing, age two, was the national anthem.

 

Our stories take place in Tel Aviv, Guatemala, Belize, Harlem, Poland and have local foods, music, airport workers and a common thread of characters from Eduardo’s life. One of the common themes is the awkward silences, the things that should be said (but are only thought), they simply remain as awkward silences.

 

In one story Halfon drives a nice car to a remote indigenous Guatemalan house so he can park safely and visit a beach, he comes across a family who keep their deranged eldest child in a cage. Not a metaphoric cage, although there is no explanation of the situation as it is a taboo subject. We also have him visiting a coffee plantation and we receive an explanation of market forces manipulated by the New York Stock Exchange on the price of Guatemalan coffee beans. All of this revealed during the course of a meal of hot tortillas, avocado and followed by hot mangoes. But the coffee discussion is a curtain to hide what really needs to be said:

 

Don Juan turned his back to us and seemed to step into the enormous, lone coffee plant. As though hiding among its green leaves, searching for something among its green leaves. As though wishing the old plant would protect him. His back still to is, he was plucking beans off the old plant, slowly, tenderly, his campesino hands letting the red fruit fall soundlessly onto the dry ground. He bent a little and picked the lower beans. He stretched to the upper branches, pulled them toward him, and his expert hands stripped them clean. The ground around his feet was turning red. He straw hat crackled in the branches. He now looked more hunched, smaller. He kept on plucking beans and dropping them onto the ground. He kept entering the foliage of the old plant, the greenery of the leaves and branches, until the whole of him disappeared entirely.

 

The stories link across each other, with recurring characters (such as the ex-girlfriend Tamara) but there is no concrete ground here, Halfon is searching for himself, writing his stories as he visits the planet, with nowhere to call home, as he explores the trivialities of existence:

 

I watch a group of children running around on the roof of the submarine base. An outing from some French school, I think, and I think about the word trivial, about the importance of the trivial in art, in literature. Isn’t the trivial, after all, the raw material of the short story writer? Aren’t anecdotes that seem trivial – that is to say, insignificant – the very clay with which the short story writer carris out his craft and shapes his art? All of life, I think, is codified in these trivial, miniscule, transparent details – details that seem not to contain anything of importance (a leaf of grass, wrote Walt Whitman, is no less than the journey-work of the stars). A great short story writer, I think as the children play on the old submarine base, know how to make something immense of the brief, something transcendent of the insignificant, knows how to transform nothing at all into a few pages that contain everything.

 

This is a work which is Karl Ove Knausgaard’esque in its exploration of triviality, and I’m pretty sure Eduardo and Karl Ove would be on a par with their cigarette smoking. We have rings on fingers, male and female, creating a perception, which then of course becomes the reality. As mentioned before we have unspoken silences, the times when you want to ask that question but feel it is out of place, explaining the awkwardness and they create a reality. We have the repetition of themes, stories, snippets, slowly building to create our perception of Halfon, our reality of the writer. All building towards his “Monastery”, a writer who is transforming “nothing at all into a few pages that contain everything”.

 

One of my favourites of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award longlist, a writer I will continue to follow, there is no doubt that I’ll search out his other translated into English work “The Polish Boxer” (sketches of this character featuring in “Monastery”) and I will have any future works on my radar. Viva Guatemala.
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