Eduardo Halfon is a master of lithe, haunting semi-autobiographical novels. His latest is Canción, an engrossing story of Jewish diaspora, secrets, and the multigenerational impacts of violence. As in his other work, he sheds light on the lesser-known Latin American and Ladino Jewish populations with poignant characterization.
Eduardo Halfon’s eponymous narrator also shares a name with his grandfather, whose shadow hangs over the story. Our narrator is endlessly curious about him: a not-quite Lebanese Jew (he was raised in and left Beirut when it was still Syria), a Guatemalan, a businessman, a patriarch, and a kidnapping victim. Halfon is particularly drawn to the 1967 kidnapping by guerillas in the Guatemalan Civil War. As a child, he witnessed soldiers visiting his grandparents’ stately home to inform his grandfather that they’d found the kidnappers. Though this was good news, the visit terrified the many family members who were present for it. The details of the ordeal fell under a veil of secrecy and childhood misunderstandings.
Our narrator is determined to learn more. He travels to Japan for a Lebanese writers’ conference, where his investigation yields a complex — if perhaps not fully complete — portrait of his grandfather. The novel moves between Japan, Halfon’s recollections of his investigation, and hazy childhood memories. The wonderful ending revels in this mix of knowing and unknowing, holding onto the awareness that identity and story transcend labels and even nationalities.
Along the way, we encounter atrocities and figures of the Guatemalan Civil War, including Canción, one of the kidnappers. His name has dual meaning: “song” and “butcher.” In Canción the character and Canción the book, the dualities of beauty and horror, humor and darkness, and memory and truth all knock against each other to reveal the long-lasting effects of war, loss, and silence.