The work of memory


by Eduardo Halfon

Translated from the Spanish (Guatemala) by David Fauquemberg

Quai Voltaire, 170 p., € 15

OI had never asked me to be a Lebanese writer before. “ Invited by the University of Tokyo to participate in a congress of Lebanese writers, the narrator admits to being surprised. “A Jewish writer, yes. A Guatemalan writer, of course. A Latin American writer obviously… ” It is on this incongruity that the new story opens, as brilliantly constructed and inspired as the precedents of the formidable storyteller Eduardo Halfon. Skilfully interweaving autobiography and fiction – the narrator merges with the author – each of his works is an invitation to a journey through the twists and turns of his family history, allowing himself many stops on foreign lands, playing with temporality, the family story often breaking into the national story.

In this new book, the author thus endeavors to follow in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, who called himself Lebanese but who was not., “Well not exactly”. Born into a Jewish family in Lebanon then under Syrian domination, he fled the country in 1917, lived for a time in New York, Haiti then Paris before settling in Guatemala. Authoritarian, the powerful voice enhanced with a strong Arabic accent, a sparkling diamond on his little finger, this novel character reigns as a patriarch over his alcazar. Until that cold morning in January 1967 when he was kidnapped by a certain Cancion, who gave the book its title. Cancion, a guerrilla with the face of a child but with a bloodthirsty heart. Guatemala was then in the midst of civil war, torn between the rebel Armed Forces and the dictators who succeeded each other at the head of the country under the thumb of the United States.

Around this tragic event, which the grandson recounts with infinite tenderness, revolve a whole series of characters who shed light on this tireless, obstinate quest for the truth. Berenice, the Argentinian cousin with incandescent blond hair, Uncle Salomon with the face of a Bedouin who reads in Turkish coffee grounds, Rogelia Cruz, a Miss Guatemala with wild beauty, Aiko the Japanese “Glass skin” whose own grandfather survived in Hiroshima, the scars of the disaster imprinted on the burnt skin of his back …

A virtuoso of words, Eduardo Halfon maintains the dramatic tension of this plural narrative, which, from Japan to Guatemala, never ceases to honor the nomadic and sometimes elusive memory of his ancestor. “It didn’t matter what I said about my grandfather now, if what I said about my grandfather was true or relevant, the only thing that mattered was talking about him without stopping. “


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