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Why This Book Should Win – Monastery by BTBA Judge Jeremy Garber

Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.

Monastery – Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Bellevue Literary Press

One of three titles on this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist to feature more than one translator (Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves [which I’ll be writing more about next week] and Leopoldo Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres being the two others), Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn – both of whom helped render Halfon’s earlier book, The Polish Boxer, into English (with the help of three other translators). Since BTBA’s inception in 2008, no Spanish-language work (in either the fiction or poetry categories) has ever taken home the much-coveted prize. Curiously – and disproportionately – some 43% of the fiction awards have gone to books translated from the Hungarian (with László Krasznahorkai having won twice, of course). For the 2015 award, eight of the twenty-five longlisted fiction titles were originally published in Spanish. With so many great books in contention for this year’s honor, perhaps 2015 will see BTBA’s first Spanish-language award winner.

Born in Guatemala City in 1971, Halfon has written about a dozen books, yet only The Polish Boxer and Monastery have yet made their way into English translation. In 2007, Halfon was named to the prestigious Hay Festival Bogotá39 list of young Spanish-language authors of great promise (along with fellow BTBA longlister Andrés Neuman). Despite being a relatively young writer, Halfon and his work have already attracted wide praise and considerable acclaim. As a one-time semifinalist for the Premio Herralde, a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and winner of the José María de Pereda Prize for Short Novel, perhaps Halfon may soon add a BTBA win to his shelf of accolades – as Monastery is well deserving of taking home the 2015 fiction award.

Composed of eight short stories, Monastery reads more like a single novel than it does a disparate collection of tales. As with its predecessor, The Polish Boxer, Monastery follows the travels of its semi-autobiographical narrator (himself named Eduardo Halfon, in keeping with the tradition of so many other self-referential Spanish-language novelists) as he alights into settings and scenarios that unfold on multiple continents. Halfon (as both author and narrator) delves into themes of individuality, personhood, and the oft-mysterious relationships that connect us to one another.

With an almost palpable reverence for meaningful experience and understanding personal history (whether his own or that of his characters), Halfon effortlessly braids lyrical language and keen observation to form a moving, reflective, and humbly resounding work of fiction. Monastery’s unassuming stories are themselves rewarding, but in collecting these far-flung moments into a single pastiche, they symbiotically meld into a rich, animate narrative – not unlike the way life itself is captured in the amassing of singular and often serendipitous occurrences and interactions.

Monastery, with its beautiful prose, vibrant imagery, and singular outlook on the abundance of individual and shared experience, deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award. As an ambassador of both worldly wonder and sublime storytelling, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, despite its brevity, is truly a marvel.

You travel a lot, he said suddenly, as he looked over all the stamps. I didn’t know whether this was a question or an observation and so I remained silent, watching him sitting there in front of me, on the other side of a black metal desk. He couldn’t have been twenty. His face was beardless, dark brown, gleaming. His green khaki uniform fit him too tightly. He seemed unbothered by the beads of sweat that ran slowly down his forehead and neck. So you like traveling, he mused without looking at me, in the contemptuous tone of a new soldier. I considered telling him that all our journeys are really one single journey, with multiple stops and layovers. That every journey, any journey, is not linear, and is not circular, and it never ends. That every journey is meaningless. But I didn’t say anything. Through the open door I could make out the noise of motorcycles, trucks, vans, a ranchera being sung on a transistor radio, thunder in the distance, swarms of flies and mosquitoes and men shouting offers to buy and sell Belizean dollars. Revolving in the corner, an old floor fan simply circulated the humid afternoon jungle heat. ~from “White Sand, Black Stone”



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