Eduardo Halfon: Identity Under Construction: A Conversation with Aurelio Auseré Abarca and Luis Miguel Estrada Orozco
The writer Eduardo Halfon (Guatemala, 1971) was the main guest of the 37th Conference of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Cincinnati, of which Aurelio Auseré Abarca and Luis Miguel Estrada Orozco were co-organizers. These questions, which extend indiscriminately throughout the author’s work, emerged from these two days of stimulating conversations.
At the age of ten, a young Halfon was exiled along with his family to Florida, fleeing from the violence and political instability that stained the Central American country during its period of civil war. After studying to become an engineer, he returned to his native country, driven to do so by an identity crisis. The need to rediscover his origins led him to graduate with a degree in Philosophy and Letters, and this effort gave way to his relatively late discovery of reading and his passion for writing. Years later, as an established writer, Halfon moved to Matute, a small town in La Rioja, Spain, the country where he has published a large measure of his work with small, minimalist presses like Pre-Textos, Libros del Asteroide, and Jekyll & Jill. Carrying on the cosmopolitan disquiet that is characteristic of the Spanish American writer and his Jewish ancestors, Halfon continues this tradition of errantry. After a brief stay in New York City, he currently lives in the state of Nebraska.
All of these factors make up the original nucleus of the work of an author in constant search of his own identity.
Luis Miguel Estrada Orozco: Eduardo, your work moves between biography and fiction, making its reception somewhat uncertain. What effect do you intend to create for your readers?
Eduardo Halfon: When I name my character Eduardo Halfon, I invite the reader to doubt, to participate in a reading, not to read passively… I don’t know why I do it. I have different ideas of why I do it. I’ve always done it, since Saturno (2003), my first book. It’s a letter in the first person written to a father, who is a lot like my father, written or narrated by a narrator who’s a lot like me, but who has no name, I still haven’t named him. It’s a reproach, it’s a son crying out to his father. The narrator is obsessed with writers who’ve committed suicide and the stories of all their relationships with their parents, moving ever closer to his own suicide. As the text progresses, he loses his mind. When I published it, I didn’t expect the reaction from readers to be so visceral, in every sense of the word. Nor did I expect such a literal reading, people saying, “Halfon needs help.” In Guatemala they published a review titled “Let’s Help Halfon” because they thought I was the narrator. And I said, “How wonderful [he laughs], how wonderful that the reader really swallowed the text.” I’d written it as a fictional letter, based on real events, but fiction in the end. So, starting with my second book, I gave my narrator my name, and I plunged into the game.
LMEO: It’s curious because the critic or specialized reader, the person who should be most capable of reading between the lines, is the first to fall into the deception or play the game.
EH: What happened was that I felt like I was transforming my reader into a little kid who joins in with the game and doesn’t ask questions. This is how it happened: I write a book and put “fiction” on the cover and you buy it as a novel. At some given moment in my books, the reader forgets this contract. The Halfon I’m reading is the Halfon who writes, and everything is absolutely real. Then the reading becomes different. Something happens in the reader who believes it. Why? What I want, in the end, is not to give you an idea or an image or a politics, but an emotion. I want to share what I feel with the reader, so we both feel it. And the only way I know to give the reader an emotion is by taking advantage of all of those tricks, of all the tricks I have within my reach as a writer to create or recreate that emotion in you as a reader. Naming my narrator “EH” is a trick. It’s nothing more than that. It’s putting a biographical disguise on “x” narrator, who could have been called Juan. But giving him my name and giving him my information creates something in the reader that I find very interesting.
Aurelio Auseré Abarca: Is there a continuous evolution of the character of “Eduardo”? Or do you really maintain a constant distance between author and character?
EH: I think it goes back and forth. There are texts where he gets further away and starts to work very differently from me. In others, he comes nearer. It’s difficult to explain. I’ll tell you an idea I like to use to explain it: how I do it. I don’t know why I do it, but I know how I do it. Every text I’ve written begins with something very close to my reality. In Monasterio [Monastery] (2014), I chose my sister’s wedding. I wrote the first few pages, in which the two siblings arrive in Israel, and then I let them gather dust for years because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know where the story was going until I realized that it wasn’t a story about a wedding. I also thought, like any reader who approaches the book, that it was about the sister’s wedding. But the wedding never comes, because it’s not about the sister’s wedding. So every text begins very close, but then that emotion I try to communicate to the reader doesn’t work only with my reality. I couldn’t achieve the effect I seek only writing about a wedding in Israel. I need to fly somehow. To go from this space to another space. And for that reason, there’s the other Halfon. He helps me to distance myself from this Halfon. He smokes, he’s good at flying, I’m bad at flying, I don’t have to explain that to you. He’s intrepid…
LMEO: That other Halfon, who takes journeys, is the same one who betrays the reader’s expectations. You think he’s going to a wedding and the wedding doesn’t show up anywhere. He’s a constant traitor.
EH: He deceives. He deceives me too.
LMEO: And that happens in several places. In the book Signor Hoffman (2015), when he goes in search of the apartment where his grandfather lived in Lodz, he finds a run-down flat inhabited by an elderly porno actress. On several occasions he makes the reader believe that he’s about to witness something sublime or find a place that’s important to his family history, but this never happens. In a sense, when he travels to places that are important to his past, memory ends up being defeated in a way. There’s nothing epic about what he finds.
EH: In my books, the searches always fail. Or they fail in their original intention. He doesn’t find what he hopes for in the apartment, he doesn’t arrive at his sister’s wedding… that original intention falls, but something else comes up. He finds something else that he wasn’t looking for or that he didn’t know he was looking for. I see the whole journey of my Halfon character through the books I’ve written as a sort of quest. We don’t have a word for “quest” in Spanish. “Search” isn’t really enough, because “quest” implies internal self-examination. My character is seeking to understand something about himself. That’s what I intuit: he seeks something about himself, and so he moves through the world, trying to pin down something that always escapes him. I think if he manages to find it he might stop. Maybe that would be the end of the journey. Or he might die. Or I might die; that is to say, he might kill me. Those are the only three possible endings to a search, a quest, of this nature. And believe me, I’ve thought about killing the guy.
AAA: In your first novel, this character already exists in some way. Could killing him be a double-edged sword for you as a writer?
EH: It wouldn’t be bad. I’m not entirely opposed to doing that when it’s finally time to stop. And that time will come. I don’t know when, but at some point I have to stop. And shut up. I don’t know when that moment will come, but I hope I’m able to detect it.
LMEO: We talked before about the types of searches that your character undertakes on the journeys that have to do with his family. But the indigenous world of Guatemala also enters into your narrative quite frequently.
EH: I’d call it the world of Guatemalan identity, which is so complex. Just like the Jewish world. The Guatemalan layer is another layer of my identity. But it’s not enough to say “Guatemalan,” just like it’s not enough to say “Jewish.” What kind of Jewish? Orthodox Jewish, secular Jewish, Ashkenazi Jewish or Sephardic Jewish? But it’s the same when you say Guatemalan, what Guatemalan? The Guatemalan of a certain social class from the capital is a particular type, that’s where I come from. But there’s also the indigenous Guatemalan, who makes up eighty percent of the country and who I approach at times. Like Juan Kalel in The Polish Boxer (2008). I like that story so much because of the investment that takes place between student and teacher. Kalel guides his former professor toward another Guatemala, the rural and indigenous Guatemala where my narrator, Eduardo Halfon, goes to look for him. That’s why the title is “Distance,” the distance that exists between these two Guatemalas and Juan Kalel’s need to guide the professor in a world that is unknown to him, where he feels unsafe. Juan Kalel feels the same way in the university life of the capital. They are two worlds, and each of them is a foreigner in the other’s territory. Even though they’re in the same country, literally kilometers apart, a distance you could travel by car. In an hour you pass from one world to the other. Just like in the story of the coffee-growers in Signor Hoffman. It’s a curious story because I wrote it for the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank). They hired me to go and live with the coffee-grower who appears in the story
AAA: In Monasterio you depict a scene charged with eroticism in which Tamara and Eduardo play on a beach by the Dead Sea while they talk about the wall that separates Palestine from Israel and Jewish identity.
EH: That’s the most solemn moment of the novel. While something is happening in literary, political terms, everything comes together there on the shores of the Dead Sea and I suddenly start to play with the erotic at the same time. But I do the same thing with humor. My sense of humor comes out at the worst possible moments. I tend to resort to it at the moment of highest tension. It’s like a valve. I see eroticism the same way. It’s an escape valve, almost a juxtaposition between two things that are apparently opposed, like talking to Tamara about salvation while playing with her leg at the same time.
AAA: That’s when Eduardo’s character tries to justify his political ideas to her, while all of that is going on.
EH: She’s confronting him. She’s holding him accountable.
AAA: And he starts telling her stories about Jewish characters who covered up their identity. That’s the source of the story that gives the book its title. As well as the dream of the airplane.
EH: And all of them come close to denying identity, in part. In the dream on the airplane, some terrorists hijack a flight and someone puts a gun in that Eduardo Halfón’s face and says, “You’re Jewish.” He says he’s not Jewish but Arab and he tries to speak Arabic. He says a few words he remembers from infancy, the food his grandma, who was Jewish but grew up in Arab countries, used to cook. That’s when I finally understood what Monasterio was about. It was a recurring dream I had dreamt many times. What would happen if I had to confront a situation like that? Would I be willing to deny a part of my identity in order to save myself? What would I have done during the Holocaust? Would I deny my Judaism in order to save myself or not? I think it’s a great question.
LMEO: The narrator refers to the characters’ tone when he talks with Tamara. They don’t just deny his identity, they also assume another. One cannot be someone without identity. A negation implicitly requires the acceptance of another identity.
EH: Something similar happens in Signor Hoffman. They invite the narrator to give a talk about the Holocaust in Italy, but the emcee can’t pronounce “Halfon,” or it sounds strange to him, and he addresses the narrator as “Signor Hoffman.” The narrator ends up accepting the mistake and he introduces himself as Hoffman when he realizes that no one else understands his surname either. Since he’s losing his identity, because no one can recognize him by his name, he comes to terms with this mistake, he is Hoffman to them. You can’t survive without those layers of identity. And if you don’t have them you invent them.
LMEO: This ends up in a search for the midpoint between what the other expects of you and your expectations of the other. Names are important in Signor Hoffman, for example, when you tell how the writer and musician E.T.A. Hoffman was assigned to officially register the names of Jews in Poland. He gave them the names with which they would be known. We might wonder if this story is true or not, but in the end it seems that it doesn’t matter too much because its symbolism is what’s truly relevant.
EH: My German editor called me when he read that scene. He told me, “This can’t be,” I told him it was so and sent him the reference to his biography so he could confirm it himself. E.T.A. Hoffman worked for the Prussian army naming Jews.
LMEO: There we return to the juxtaposition of the solemn and the trivial. He gives them names depending on his mood at the time…
EH: It depends on what’s on his mind, if he’s coming from church, from eating, from having a drink… It’s a name that will define you for your whole life, and not only you, but also your family. When you asked me before the interview about the origin of the name “Halfon,” I mentioned that an immigration officer in New York, on Ellis Island, transgressed my identity with the stroke of a pen when he cut off half of my grandfather’s last name. My name is a mistake. All our names come from an invention, from a place name, from something. Think of last names in Spanish. My wife’s family, from La Rioja, all has last names based on places: Fuentes, Corral… that may have been Jewish. Because many of these last names or toponyms belonged to converted Jews who took the name of whatever was closest at hand. Little by little, I got more and more interested in the subject of the name. In my new book, I continue to develop it. There’s something about it that really interests me. And it’s obvious that it’s one of the main themes in Signor Hoffman. It wasn’t always called that. It was called “Until love kills us all,” which are the last words of the story. But my French editor told me, “This is high flown, this isn’t Halfon.” Besides that, in French they don’t take it well when you use the word “love.” But in its first iteration, in Revista Ñ, it was published under that longer title.
AAA: Before we finish, I’d like to ask you about your stay in Spain, specifically in La Rioja. When you arrived as a new writer from Guatemala, how was your immersion in the circle of Spanish or Latin American writers then based in Spain?
EH: I arrived in La Rioja as the husband of a Riojan. I didn’t arrive as a writer. But in short order a friend of my wife’s family introduced me to the man who would become my Riojan editor. He published my books Clases de dibujo [Drawing classes] and Clases de hebreo [Hebrew classes]. They’re published in La Rioja. They’re both very short books. I met him in the first week and I immediately got involved in the Riojan literary world. I started to meet with them, with many poets. They have a festival and I participated in it. My entry into the Riojan literary world was very easy, very organic. And I remain there. In a few weeks the third Clases book will come out, a new book of short stories called Clases de chapín [Guatemalan classes], as Guatemalans call each other. It’s the third volume, although it includes the two previous ones. My Latin American colleagues, and there are many of them, were mostly in Madrid and Barcelona. If it had reached any of them, I would have gotten in touch with them more quickly. But it was fast anyway. You’re bonded by the fact of being Latin American in Spain. You feel you’re among your own. I felt very “Latin American” when I was with them. Much more “Latin American” than “Guatemalan.” We were more united by the fact of being Latin American writers living in Spain. Like having soldiers in your troop.
AAA: Have you ever thought of including Spain or the United States in your novels? Because they are also parts of your life…
EH: It’s not that I’ve thought of it, it’s that it’s going to happen. I wrote a lot in La Rioja, but I didn’t write about La Rioja. And about the United States, of course; that’s in my new novel, and it’s strong. Part of this new novel, Duelo [Duel] (2017), is my childhood in the United States, which is when the little boy starts to realize that his uncle didn’t die of drowning. I gradually found out, through a few discoveries, that this story was false. And that’s what happens when he’s in Florida. I recreate those moments of waking up to the realities of that man’s death.
Translated by Arthur Dixon