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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Polish Boxer

Eduardo Halfon

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To purchase The Polish Boxer

Title: The Polish Boxer
Author: Eduardo Halfon
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 188 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Polish Boxer - US
The Polish Boxer - UK
The Polish Boxer - Canada
The Polish Boxer - India
El boxeador polaco - España
  • Spanish title: El boxeador polaco -- but note how translator Ollie Brock describes the translation: "It is a new work, combining five stories from an original collection of six, a novella split into its four parts and one previously uncollected piece as a sort of coda."
  • Translated by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead, and Anne McLean

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Our Assessment:

B : fine storytelling and writing, but not quite a cohesive whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 4/12/2012 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent . 10/11/2012 Emilia Ippolito
The LA Times . 30/9/2012 David L. Ulin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/12/2012 Sheila Glaser
Publishers Weekly . 9/7/2012 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book is, among other things, an examination into the reliability or otherwise of literature. (...) The Polish Boxer is a book that picks away at the idea of belonging as though at a scab; by which I mean to suggest that running all the way through it is a painful awareness of never quite fitting in, whether because of a state of mind, as in the case of Halfon's student, or because you are carrying within you the heritage of two antagonistic halves." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "There is a sophisticated hide-and-seek game played by the author with the reader, which sees the plot submerge and re-emerge in an alternating rhythm. (...) We cannot resist following the author/narrator by thinking of possible ways of deceiving him in return in a fascinating thriller. This is a stimulating and inspiring read." - Emilia Ippolito, The Independent

  • "(A) book that willfully and delightfully blurs the boundaries among novel, memoir and meditation (.....) The Polish Boxer is the first book of Halfon's to be translated into English, and it is all about that contradiction: How do we make meaning when meaning eludes us at every turn ?" - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Eduardo Halfon is the author of 11 books, but The Polish Boxer is his first to be translated into English, by, as it happens, five translators. This seems less a testament to the difficulty of the novel than a playful nod to one of its central preoccupations: how translation is a form of writing and writing is a form of translation. It is the sort of concern that can easily become ponderous in the wrong hands; in Halfon’s, it is funny and revelatory." - Sheila Glaser, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Thus right away, we’re in the murky half-light where fiction meets memoir meets memory and the impossibility thereof. It’s interesting territory, but it’s not immediately clear what that slippage does to enhance the loose skein of past and present events that befall Eduardo." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Polish Boxer is a collection of stories that are -- some more, some less -- connected; apparently an expanded version of the Spanish original (see co-translator Ollie Brock's explanation: "It is a new work, combining five stories from an original collection of six, a novella split into its four parts and one previously uncollected piece as a sort of coda"), it doesn't quite manage to take full novel-shape and feels a bit cobbled together.
       Narrated by 'Eduardo Halfon', a professor of literature from Guatemala bearing a close resemblance to the actual author, the individual chapters/stories are also largely self-contained. The title suggests the figure of a Polish boxer is significant, and he does crop up several times -- but Halfon takes his time getting to his significance. Early on, for example, there's just an aside that, but for the title, readers might not even pay much attention to:

I thought of my grandfather and the bottle of whiskey we'd drunk together while he told me about Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz and the Polish boxer.
       It takes a while before Halfon can confront that memory head on. Halfon's grandfather has a number tattooed on his arm; he says it's his phone-number, a dodge no one challenges, though even Halfon found that those numbers: "much more than on his forearm, seemed to me to be tattooed on some part of his soul". As it turns out, a man he knew just as the Polish boxer helped Halfon's grandfather survive Auschwitz; he is a central figure but, just as Halfon's grandfather never knew his name or even saw his face, he remains a shadowy one too.
       Much of The Polish Boxer has Halfon seeking out others: a student of his who leaves university in Guatemala, a Serbian musician he met. Each is in their own way elusive -- the musician even on several levels, beginning with his habit of only deciding at the last minute what he was going to perform, but extending to his one-way communication via postcards, which he sends from all over, without giving his own address (and thus the opportunity for a response). Halfon is also somewhat elusive; certainly, he presents himself as rather hard to pin down and in a rather unsettled state, and the stories also see him travel quite extensively.
       Thinking about writing, Halfon suggests:
     Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing.
       In this sense, the presentation of the English version of The Polish Boxer is ideal, since the whole is so clearly artificial: these stories have been pieced together, but reality clearly remains beyond what only appears to be this "single unified thing".
       Using autobiography -- personal experience more or less fictionalized -- and having his narrator even share his name (i.e. there's no effort to disguise the protagonist) suggests Halfon wants to lean very closely on reality. This works fine: he tells these stories well, and these various adventures are all quite entertaining, but there's something unformed to all of this: there remains a work-in-progress feel to it. Halfon has all this material to work through, and even though he manages to wrestle with pieces of it isn't quite sure about the reality he might shape out of it all. Even the grandfather's experience in Auschwitz is something he only seems to be beginning to come to terms with -- as suggested also by several cautious early mentions of the tattoo and the Polish boxer before what's behind them is actually revealed.
       The Polish Boxer is perfectly fine, but feels more like a story-collection than proper novel -- the rare book that might actually have worked better if there were less continuity and connection among the pieces than what has been imposed on it.
       Noteworthy also for being the work of five (!) translators, the translation itself isn't the issue: The Polish Boxer reads very well, the narrator's/Halfon's voice convincingly and surprisingly uniformly rendered.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 October 2012

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The Polish Boxer: Reviews: Eduardo Halfon: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon was born in 1971.

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© 2012 the complete review

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