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Eduardo Halfon: Duelo (Mourning)
The narrator of this novel is called Eduardo Halfon and the novel is clearly, at least in part, autobiographical. He has flown to Rome and is now travelling by train to Paola. From there, he will go to the Ferramonti di Tarsia concentration camp, the largest concentration camp built by Mussolini. To his horror, he learns that the camp he is visiting is not the original – that was destroyed to make a road – but a reconstruction. Almost four thousand Jews had been in the camp, most of them not from Italy. Most of them died from malaria because of the marshy conditions in the area.
He meets two people there. Panebianco (it means white bread) is the director. With him is Marina, who, he assumes, is Panebianco’s daughter but she is not but a graduate student in history who works for local museums. The museum is holding a week of events relating to Holocaust Memorial Day, held on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and he has been invited to talk about his book about his grandfather (presumably El boxeador polaco (The Polish Boxer)).
At the event, Panebianco calls him Signor Hoffman and this becomes a running joke. After the event, he goes to a bar with Marina and there is an announcement on the TV of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Halfon had actually seen Hoffman in New York and planned to speak to him but did not. He will later learn that the writer E. T. A. Hoffmann had lived some time in Poland and had had a job of naming Jews. Everyone had had to officially register and most Jews did not have surnames so he invented ones for them, finally using his own name but with the final n truncated. Throughout the book, he will be called Hoffman or even call himself Hoffman.
This book is about a key theme of 20th and 21st century literature, memory and the recovery of memory. Many of Halfon’s ancestors were killed in the Holocaust. However, his paternal grandfather, who had been arrested in Łódź by the Germans, had been sent to various camps, including Auschwitz but had managed to survive. By a tortuous route, he had finally got to Guatemala. He had vowed never to return to Poland and asked his family not to go either, because, he felt, the Poles had betrayed the Jews. He also refuses to speak Polish. Eduardo decides, despite his grandfather’s request, that he wants to go to Poland and see where his grandfather lived.
The book is not told in chronological order. Indeed, it very much much jumps around, abruptly stopping at one time and place to equally abruptly move to another. However, we learn of his visits both to Germany and Poland. He visits concentration camps and hates it, eager to leave and not follow the official tour. The concentration camp was nothing but a tourist attraction dedicated to profiting from human suffering. He does, however, find out more about his grandfather’s time in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
However, he does go to Łódź, where he meets Madame Maroszek, who had been recommended to him by a friend. Madame Maroszek has two advantages. She speaks several languages, including Spanish, and it seems that she helped many Jews escape from Poland during the Holocaust. She takes him around Łódź, including to the apartment where his grandfather had lived and gives him some interesting books.
But, while the Holocaust is certainly key to this book, it is not just about that. Halfon’s father had a brother called Salomón, who, apparently drowned in a lake when he was five. Or did he? There seems to be some ambiguity about this and Halfon tells us the story of his investigation of this, both discussions with family members, who seem to have some guilty secret to hide, and a visit to the lake in question where the Halfon family used to spend their summers, to see if there is anyone who can shed light on the death of Salomón.
While these two investigations are the bulk of the book, we do learn about his family, getting to Guatemala, leaving Guatemala for the United States when the violence in Guatemala gets out of hand, his not always easy relationship with his younger brother and even about Uncle Emile, the swindler.
On the whole, memoirs-as-novels do not work for me but Halfon writes very well indeed and the investigations, the colourful characters he meets and the historical background all make for a a very enjoyable and interesting novel.
First published in 2017 by Libros del Asteroide
First English translation in 2018 by Bellevue Literary Press