The problem with reading so many books at a time, so many, indeed, that the piles beside the bedside totter and sway; the problem, I think to myself in one of those everyday moments of realisation that seem to link up everything in the universe in a sublime act of synthesis, is that the themes, the plots, the characters, all start to form a single continuous entity, and one’s reading begins to resemble the world, infinite in association and connotation . . .
Reading Eduardo Halfon’s sublimely nuanced new offering, the novella – for want of a better word – Monasterio, I am struck once again by the simple fluency of Halfon’s prose, indeed slightly envious that he carries off acts of complex suggestivity with such grace and clarity of expression. I do not wish to get bogged down in a fallacious argument about the meaning of ‘clarity’ or ‘simplicity’ in prose writing: readers of Spanish will already have the opportunity to sample what I mean, and the author’s growing legion of English readers have a real treat to look forward to when the book appears in that language. The story follows Eduardo Halfon, a cypher, or perhaps a version, of Eduardo Halfon, but one who smokes a lot of cigarettes, whereas the real Halfon ‘seldom smokes’ (as my uncle once remarked to a German parachute officer surrendering to him at Monte Cassino, while simultaneously offering him a fat cigar). Not smoking is not the only difference between Eduardo and Eduardo, but let’s not confuse perception and representation. For a long time I thought this particular author was magnificently moustachioed, whereas in reality it is the way his little finger nestles to the side of his mouth on the sleeve photo of his books . . . but let’s move on . . .
The book begins with Eduardo and his brother arriving at Tel Aviv airport to attend the wedding of their sister, who has joined a fundamentalist Zionist group and is due to be married off to a fellow fanatic selected for her by the Rabbi. It is hot and our protagonists are not in the best of moods. Neither of them are practising Jews and they have serious reservations, to say the least, about both their sister’s faith and her prospective spouse, whom none of the family has met. A man who was on the flight with them, and is waiting by the carrousel, is suddenly set upon by security and bundled away. It happens in an instant. Eduardo thinks he recognises one of the Lufthansa flight attendants near the man as an ex-flame, Tamara, but he is not certain . . . Within the seven opening pages the essential matrix of the story is laid out. But the mastery of Halfon’s style lies in the way the story unfolds. He takes his time. There is nothing wasted in his prose. Everything counts, and everything holds our attention.
Late in the book (it is only 120 pages, but its density makes it seem longer) we go for a dip in the Dead Sea, and there is an extended discussion on the theme of salt. One of the most interesting nuggets to come out of this passage is that “the Romans called a man in love ‘salax’, which means to be in a salty state, and which is . . . . the origin of the word salacious.”
A salty dog, anyone?