Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: Eduardo Halfon’s “The Polish Boxer,” a Giveaway, and the Return of the “Is-It-Really-a-Novel?” Question

If you’ve made it past the ridiculously long post title, maybe you’ll bear with me a moment longer.

Remember back in July, when we were talking about the categories of novels and (linked) short-story collections? Remember that I described some difficulties that I had encountered reading Shani Boianjiu’s novel, simply because it was being presented and marketed as a novel–and I saw it more as a story collection?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Or somewhat the same thing. My latest book review, published last week in The Jewish Journal, discusses Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer (translated, as I note in the review, by a group of translators: Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean).

The review begins:

Several factors drew me to Eduardo Halfon’s “The Polish Boxer,” translated by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean (Bellevue Literary Press: $14.95), including its billing (in the industry bible Publishers Weekly and elsewhere) as a semi-autobiographical novel in which the 40-ish author explores the experience of his Auschwitz-survivor grandfather. Moreover, unlike most of the Anglophone writing penned by grandchildren of Holocaust refugees and survivors that I’ve discovered to date, “The Polish Boxer” would present me with a work in translation, as the author was born in Guatemala in 1971. (Halfon immigrated to Florida with his family 10 years later and currently divides his time between Nebraska and Guatemala; he continues to write in Spanish.)

The book itself is impressive, and I’ll tell you why. But it’s important to offer some comments and clarifications in case you, too, encounter the sound bites and publicity lines about the book that came my way before I read it.

First, if you’re expecting a conventional novel, you’d best adjust those expectations. “The Polish Boxer” comprises 10 titled sections; I’ll call them short stories, because that’s what they are.

I hope that you’ll read the full review, but if you’re in a hurry, I’ll cut to the chase with this snippet:

Regardless of whether it is deemed a novel, a story collection or, for all we know, autobiography, this book provides multiple pleasures: clear, intense prose; sharp, laugh-out-loud depictions of classrooms and conferences (perhaps appreciated especially by those readers with academic backgrounds); and the apparent seamlessness of the translations (if you didn’t know that this version is the result of an unusual collaborative effort among several translators, I suspect you wouldn’t guess).

Then, of course, there’s the fact that the book itself gives a resounding retort to those who might dismiss it as “another” book “about” the Holocaust. This book is different, pure and simple.

In some amazingly coincidental timing, the review was published the very same day that a gift copy of the book–signed by translator Daniel Hahn at the behest of an exceedingly thoughtful and generous gift-giving friend of mine who is Hahn’s colleague–arrived in the mail. Which means that I have a (gently used) review copy that I’d be happy to mail out to someone at a U.S. address as a holiday gift. What say you? I’ll consider all commenters for this giveaway. Just comment here by Sunday, December 9 at 5 p.m. Some random number generating will ensue. UPDATE: Congratulations to Barbara Green, our giveaway winner! Barbara, please contact me and send your mailing address so I can get the book out to you. Thanks to everyone for playing along!

12 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: Eduardo Halfon’s “The Polish Boxer,” a Giveaway, and the Return of the “Is-It-Really-a-Novel?” Question

  1. This sounds like an absolutely fascinating book. Thanks for letting me know about it!

  2. Mihku Paul says:

    Hello Erika,

    While I was in graduate school for writing, the novel was (even now) considered the gold standard of writing projects, followed closely by other full-length manuscripts, then short fiction, poetry and flash fiction. Of course, no one said it directly, but this order of precedence seemed quite clear to me. I honestly don’t understand why this seems to be the status quo, when so many fascinating and well-crafted hybrid forms are out there these days.
    Yes, a novel is a challenging project, but I don’t think other forms are less so. It simply depends, I think, on the writer and the topic. My thesis is a collection of five stories all set in the same town. Characters appear in primary roles in some and cameos in others, but the story overall is about a place and the various people who inhabit it and in that sense it really is one story.
    I wonder if this need to categorize things stems more from agents and publishers telling us we must “position” a project correctly for it to sell. I write across genres. To me, it’s all words. I came to formal training late in life, long after I had already established my own perspectives on story. I have noticed that it is seldom other writers who admonish me to “stay with one genre, because that is all most people can master.” Usually this comes from agents and editors. I think we need to expand our definition of the novel.
    As to the issue of writing “another” book about “the holocaust,” well, I am Amerindian and as such, suffered my own holocaust. I understand that this event is not just pages in a book, or something from our past. These holocausts are a form of historic and cultural devastation that will persist in our cultural consciousness for generations to come. And they should. Such examples of the worst in human behavior must be studied, talked about and explored through creative expression so that someday we might understand and change. And anyone who says the topic is “over” doesn’t get it.

    1. Well said! I am just about to post a blog on why we must keep on telling and retelling holocaust stories!

  3. The Polish Boxer sounds fascinating. I wonder if books are NOT billed as story collections because publishers find it so hard to sell short stories? I don’t know why. The short story is, IMHO, the hardest form to write but the most satisfying to read. I hope you’ll put my name in the hat for the book!

  4. I am itching to read that book, it’s popped up on my radar no less than one time per day over the past three weeks as I have been looking around for holiday gifts to buy and I think that means I am supposed to read it and own it!

    1. Me, too, Kimberly! It’s been showing up on all the year-end lists I’ve perused this week. I finally added it to my Goodreads “To Read” list.

  5. Sounds quite interesting … except for the group translation thing. I worked with others translating some texts from French into English and getting concordance was … a challenge. With five translators trying to agree on “le mot juste,” I’m sure it was a “spirited” effort.

  6. Barbara Green says:

    Sounds like a fascinating read. As my temple’s librarian, I think it would make a noteworthy addition to our collection.

  7. Ruth says:

    I’m currently reading this book , and I absolutely love it. Eduardo Halfon has a very romantic way of describing things. I’m looking forward to reading his other books, all of which seem to have the same format as The Polish Boxer. Reading this book led me to another great Guatemalan writer, Augusto Monterroso, whose writing style is similar to Mr. Halfon’s.

  8. Erika Dreifus says:

    I appreciated all of these comments, everyone! I wish I had multiple copies to give, but the number generator has awarded the copy to BARBARA GREEN. Barbara, please contact me and send your address along so I can mail the book to you.

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