"Monastery" by Eduardo Halfon

I wanted to tell him that 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.

 

The passage above beautifully describes the essence of Eduardo Halfon’s books. I couldn’t wait to read this book, that’s why I was thrilled when it finally came out in English translation only about a week ago. Eduardo Halfon’s previous effort, The Polish Boxer, was nothing short of astonishing and I eagerly delved into his new novel Monastery and found myself unable to put it down. Monastery could be read as a companion piece to the previous book but the book stands on its own so that the reader doesn’t have to read the previous one in order to follow along (though it does greatly enhance the experience). Some of the characters from The Polish Boxer appear again throughout these interconnected stories; and just as in The Polish Boxer, each of these stories - laid out as chapters - can easily stand on their own as stories in their own right.

 

However the interconnected nature of them makes this whole. So while not a “novel” in the traditional sense, it hangs together as a novel, telling one single story. Again, the narrator is also named Eduardo Halfon, a Guatemalan/Lebanese writer with a Jewish background who finds himself - along with his brother - in Israel to attend their sister’s wedding. Their sister is going to marry an ultra-Orthodox man and she herself has changed her name and become ultra-orthodox herself. The brothers don’t take too kindly of their “sister’s husband” and are put off by his fundamentalist views. It is Eduardo’s initial experiences in Israel which I find most interesting. While he explores Jerusalem and thinks about his own background and that of his grandfather, he also encounters a Jerusalem where his cab driver expresses his desire to “kill all the Arabs”, not realizing that his passenger is half-Arab himself. There is a lot of the unsaid in this story which makes it the powerful one that it is - that of “the other”, that of the “certainty” of one’s beliefs (as referenced via his sister’s husband to be, especially when visiting an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood where he and his brother dodge a hail of stones for “daring” to try to take a taxi on the Sabbath). There is the unspoken theme of how those who see themselves as so different from others are actually more alike than they are willing to admit.

 

It is also at the airport in Tel Aviv where Eduardo runs into an old flame - Tamara - an Israeli woman with whom he had a brief fling (and also made an appearance in The Polish Boxer). They make plans to meet and by the end of the first chapter, they do - and that storyline will reoccur as the novel progresses. Meanwhile, the other stories document

 

Eduardo’s travels and experiences: poverty stricken Guatemalan villages, where he encounters a poor family who keeps their mentally disturbed son in a bamboo cage; a small village in Belize where he is followed by immigration officials, one of whom wears a ring that is strikingly similar to one that his grandfather once wore; a Guatemalan coffee plantation where he meets a family of coffee growers and learns of their exploitation by an Italian business man who profited off their hard labor; a trop to the Polish city of Lodz, where he explores his grandfather’s birthplace; the port city of Saint-Nazaire, in Bretonian France, the very port where his grandfather sailed for America after getting out of a concentration camp; and finally, back to Israel, where he and Tamara spend the day together, swimming in the Dead Sea where Eduardo relates a tale of an old Jewish man who had survived the Holocaust by living as a little girl in a Christian monastery for years. Meanwhile, all these stories reference on another (as well as the stories in the previous book) and take the reader on an incredible journey. But it is this quote, while ruminating the stories of Chekhov, that says the most about the stories within this novel:

 

I think about the word trivial, about the importance of the trivial in art, in literature. Isn’t the trivial, after all, the raw material of the short story writer? Aren’t anecdotes that seem trivial - that is to say, insignificant - the very clay with which the short story writer carries out his craft and shapes his art? All life, I think, is codified in these trivial, minuscule, transparent details - details that seem not to contain anything of importance (a leaf of grass, wrote Walt Whitman, is no less than the journey-work of the stars). A great short story writer {...} knows how to make something immense of the brief, something transcendent of the insignificant, knows how to transform nothing at all into a few pages that contain everything.

 

It is these last few words that say the most about Halfon’s writing and storytelling, although I would hardly refer to the stories and anecdotes revealed within these stories as “trivial” or “insignificant”. They are filled with the stuff of life, the details that make a person’s life the fascinating stuff of great literature. Halfon’s talent is to take these seemingly “insignificant” details and make them immensely human and make the reader think, taking the reader places he/she will not expect to go; and he does it with such grace you can’t help but be pulled along and immersed in it. Obviously you can tell that this book did not disappoint. It is simply an amazing read and I can’t recommend this highly enough. Absolutely beautiful.

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