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Eduardo Halfon on Guatemala City

The young, precocious central American author behind some of the year's best short-stories talks about his city, fear and the importance of lying

Under Travel Books, writer, critic and translator Sophie Hughes talks about her favourite radical literature from all over the world.

Each month Dazed Digital is going to trek the extra 24,901.55 miles to uncover the most muscular minds from the least represented literary scenes today. I could think of no-one more worthy to kick off with than Guatemala City-born, Eduardo Halfon, who Dazed exposed this summer on the publication of his English-language debut, The Polish Boxer.

The book is a meticulously crafted, delinquent novel of short-stories. Tamara, an Israeli who “likes her nipples bitten hard” rubs pages with the fictional Eduardo Halfon’s grandfather, a Holocaust-survivor. His girlfriend, Lía, keeps a diary of orgasms she sketches when “words are not enough”, while an errant gypsy dispatches postcards from around the world –sometimes folkloric, sometimes blank, sometimes full of lies. It’s beautiful schizophrenia on the page; a meeting point of “Eduardo Halfon” and his creator, Eduardo Halfon.

I contacted the latter to find out if Guatemalan writing tends to be as unrestrained -technically, conceptually and sexually –as his own. In honour of his postcard nomadism, we agreed to share roaming emails over a weekend. So far, so good. Except our go-to man for Guatemala was in Minneapolis, on his way to a writer’s residence in upstate New York: it turns out he lies for a living, and sees Guatemala City as anything but home…

Dazed Digital: Eduardo, It's 10.30 on Friday morning. There’s a good service operating on all London Underground lines. When I get off the district line, it'll be raining. What can you see now?

Eduardo Halfon: I'm in Penn Station, in New York, waiting for my train, seeing everyone else also waiting for their train. Thinking about dreams that are novels, and novels that are dreams, and trains that go nowhere. Time to go nowhere.

DD: And in your mind's eye, what does Guatemala City look like right now?

EH: I've always seen Guatemala as an outsider, with an outsider's perspective. Even when I'm there. Perhaps especially when I'm there. I learned from a very early age the art of not belonging —we left Guatemala on the day of my tenth birthday, for the US— and I grew up straddling two places, and two languages, and two cultures, never really belonging to either. But being an outsider is also part of my heritage or tradition, as a Jew. The nomadic nature of a Jew. The Zelig-like quality of pretending to belong, of appearing as if you belong, when you really don't. Although inside, always outside looking in.

DD: Did you face forwards or backwards on the train?

EH: I faced backwards. I tried to change seats once I noticed the train start up, but couldn't. I prefer to face forwards. To see where I'm going. To always know in which direction I'm headed. Although, when I write, it’s the complete opposite. When I write, I always sit facing backwards, and just let the train take me where it needs to take me. 

DD: In TPB you paint an electrifying portrait of the artist as an outsider: Juan, a precocious poet, is damned by the circumstances of his birth. Is this something you’ve witnessed with young writers and artists in Guatemala - flair, but no opportunity to have it nurtured?

EH: I would say that that's something I've witnessed not only with poets and writers, but with Guatemalans in general. Any possible flair, or creativity, or revolutionary spirit, or beautiful voice is immediately extinguished by the country's circumstances —military despotism, ruling oligarchy, corruption, violence, rampant poverty and illiteracy, absolute impunity. For generations, any Guatemalan with a creative or revolutionary or beautiful voice was either silenced, or made to disappear, or forced into exile. The result is a society ruled by fear. Fear to speak. Fear to create. It isn't a coincidence, then, that most well-known Guatemalan writers have left, and done their writing from a safer distance.

DD: The boy from Guatemala didn’t see himself at a writer’s residence in NY then?

EH: The boy in Guatemala would have laughed if you said to him that he'd someday be at a writer's residence, in upstate New York. That boy didn't write, never read books, never had books read to him, didn't care about much more than sports. He was groomed to become a successful engineer, and a dutiful son, and a good Jew, and a well-behaved and mild-mannered and soft-spoken member of a family and a community. He turned out to be none of these. He tore off his grooming and escaped to the pages of fiction, some of which are being written in Spanish and translated into English right here, in this bucolic and pristine writer's residence, in upstate New York.  

DD: Is what we end up with after your “escape to the pages of fiction” the closest we can hope to get to an honest impression of Eduardo Halfon? 

EH: Yes. Not a real impression, but an honest or true one… truth is a feeling, a sensation, a music we can't get out of our heads though we can't quite hear it either. And this is precisely what fiction does, if it’s done right. We can feel the truth about something, although we know that truth is made up of a series of lies. The fictionalized Eduardo Halfon is honest, and true, and also a series of lies. The real one doesn't matter. 

DD: So, in the name of honest journalism, you don’t mind if I fictionalise your answers?...

EH: In the name of honest journalism, and dishonest literature, I was praying and hoping that you would. 

Cover Image Upton