The Frontrunners, Part Two by BTBA Judge Jeremy Garber
Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.
Monastery (Bellevue Literary Press)
Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Like a companion volume or literary reverberation, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery continues the itinerant wanderings begun in his beautifully-composed The Polish Boxer. Monastery’s narrator, a certain Eduardo Halfon, encounters and engages the world around him – be he beside the West Bank barrier, seeking an intimate jazz performance in Harlem, or visiting a coffee plantation in Guatemala. Reflective and reminiscent, the short stories/tales/vignettes that make up Halfon’s second work translated into English are effortlessly gratifying. Halfon needn’t employ a stylistically singular prose style (although he writes magnificently) or rely on compelling, convoluted plots to evince the wonder of the world around him. Each of the eight pieces contained within Monastery offers a melodic yet transitory glimpse of the seemingly insignificant moments that eventually merge into memories of consequence.
Halfon, honored as one of the Bogotá 39, has about a dozen works to his name. El ángel literario (“The Literary Angel”) – a 2004 semifinalist for the Premio Herralde (won previously by the likes of Javier Marías, Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Daniel Sada) – appears to be, like both Monastery and The Polish Boxer after it, an astounding semi-autobiographical work that blends genres and transcends the merely fictional. Seeing more of the Guatemala City-born author’s works in translation would be a gift.
Maybe it was her driving. Maybe it was the combination of hash and the heat inside the Citroën and the adrenaline rush I’d gotten with the soldiers. Maybe it was something much darker and more fleeting. I rolled the window all the way down, stuck my head out and, breathing in the warm fresh air, thought of other walls. Chinese walls and German walls and American walls. Holy walls of temples and damp mossy walls of cells. The brick walls of a ghetto, the walls surrounding an entire people imprisoned in a ghetto, starving in a ghetto, dying slowly and silently. All of a sudden, I saw or imagined I saw on the wall (we were driving very fast and my eyes were almost closed and my pupils were dilated) the all-black figure of the girl in the Banksy painting: her black braid, black bangs, little black skirt, black shoes, black face looking up, her whole body facing up toward the sky as she floats up the wall with the help of a bunch of black balloons held in her tiny black hand. It occurred to me, my head halfway out the window and already experiencing a delicious lethargy from the hash, that a wall is the physical manifestation of man’s hatred of the other. A palpable concrete manifestation that attempts to separate us from the other, isolate us from the other, eliminate the other from our sight and from our world. But it’s also a clearly useless manifestation: no matter how tall and thick the construction, no matter how long and imposing the structure, a wall is never insurmountable. A wall is never bigger than the spirit of those it confines. Because the other is still there. The other doesn’t disappear, never disappears. The other’s other is me. Me, and my spirit, and my imagination, and my black balloons.
Navidad & Matanza (Open Letter)
Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden
It is a game. Not a novel. There is no story. Only rules.
A metafictional, heady tale of disappeared children, a novel-game coauthored by laboratory subjects, and a hatred/fear-inducing drug called hadón, Navidad & Matanza is the first of Chilean-born writer Carlos Labbé’s works to be published in English. Excerpted previously in Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists 2010 issue (as “The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable”), Navidad & Matanza’s labyrinthine story within a story is both sinister and foreboding.
Labbé, a novelist and screenwriter (who penned his master’s thesis on Roberto Bolaño), deftly weaves an intricate, enigmatic story into and around itself. Navidad & Matanza could be the hallucinogenic amalgamation of a César Aira plot with setting and characters conceived by Bolaño – if written using Oulipo-style constraints. Though less than 100-pages in total, Labbé’s novel has an inebriating effect that persists well after the book’s conclusion. With ample imagination and commanding style, Navidad & Matanza certainly marks Labbé as a young author from whom we ought to anticipate great, fascinating things to come.
To that end, five friends of similar interests and I had come up with a system that, in the beginning, seemed like an original and fascinating discovery. A novel-game. In short, it involved rolling dice, moving your token to a space with prefigured plotlines and formal constraints, writing a text according to those constraints and, that night, mailing this text to the other participants. Everyone had been assigned a day of the week, except Sunday, a day of rest. It was a game of complex rules and seduction. And the result was out of control.