A father is a name
The prose debut Saturn by Guatemalan-born and American-raised Eduardo Halfon is about fathers. That the picture painted of fathers is not positive is already clear from the title. Saturn, the supreme Roman god, ate his own children because he was afraid they would kill him.
The Dutch translation of Saturn contains 44 pages and the book can hardly even be called a short story. It can best be described as a monologue in which the first person invokes his father and to whom he asks questions that remain unanswered.
That this ego is Halfon himself seems plausible. I am also a writer, and Halfon’s theme of identity is dealt with (‘I don’t feel anything at all.) which will return even more strongly in his novels. But since in other works the author regularly plays tricks on his readers, it cannot be said with certainty that the author Halfon coincides one-on-one with the I accuser.
The I prosecutor gives the reader an insight into the unsatisfactory relationship with his father. The latter is disinterested, (verbally) aggressive, also absent. The I-prosecutor sees parallels in the father/son relationship between writers who committed suicide. He lists those who took pills or gas, those who jumped, hanged themselves or drowned.
The accusation gradually becomes a kind of proof of the possible consequence, suicide, that a father’s behavior can have. What you already suspect, and which becomes clear as you read on, is that the prosecutor himself is struggling with suicidal thoughts. “As Hemingway’s father, you hold my gun in my hand,” he says.
Although the prosecutor’s father detests his choice of profession (he introduces him to friends as ‘This is my son, the engineer’. Also interchanged with ‘the lawyer’), the only bond between them occurs precisely through literature. A band that keeps coming from one direction. The accuser flees to the feminine (language), the place that will surely be shunned by his father. He has nothing left of the relationship with his father except to write about it, but “my writing cried,” he says. The originally Spanish version mentions the meaning of language in the extended title: Esto no es una pipa, Saturno. Nota bene, René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, which expresses the principle that reality can only be handled through an indirect description of it through signs or language.
The monologue gradually develops into a dialogue with one voice, an inner voice it seems at first, later with several voices. It is the voices of the deceased authors who guide the prosecutor and ask him if he has any symptoms yet. Symptoms that they have also had it point to an imminent suicide attempt. Whether he hears bells, the birds speak in Greek, or whether he can no longer write. In Eduardo Halfon’s real life, there is no indication of writer’s block at the time because… Saturn was only the beginning of his writing career. But what is not yet may yet come, the very last words suggest.
No matter how many suicide writers Halfon introduces in the book, the reader knows that not all writers with a “bad” father commit suicide. That makes the ‘proof’ a bit far-fetched. Also, one reader will tolerate the accusation, written with a certain self-pity, better than the other.
What makes the book worth reading is the macabre, but interesting, list of suicides and how these authors’ voices are allowed to unravel. They represent the bigger picture. A whole that lets go of the concrete, the raw side of the suicides and suggests a fictional connection between kindred spirits.
Rosanna Del Negro
Edward Halfon – Saturn. Translated from Spanish by Marijke Arijs. Wings, Bleiswijk. 44 pp. €22.90.
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