Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún (tr. Sophie Hughes)

First published in Spanish in 2015, Affections is the second novel by the Bolivian writer Rodrigo Hasbún (his first to be translated into English). Hasbún is something of a rising star in Latin American literature circles. In 2007 he was named as one of the Bogotá 39, the 39 most important Latin American writers under the age of 39; moreover, in 2010 he was included in Granta’s list of the twenty-two best young writers in Spanish. (Hasbún was born in 1981.) In light of this pedigree, I was keen to read Affections, especially given the timing as July is Spanish literature month.

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The focus of Affections is an unusual one. Hasbún’s novella is work of fiction inspired by real figures and historical events from the 1950s and ‘60s. The story revolves around the work and family life of Hans Ertl, the renowned cinematographer who is perhaps most famous for his collaborations with the German film-maker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. (Triumph des Willens and Olympia, both filmed in the 19030s, were two of Riefenstahl’s best-known works.) Affections, however, concerns itself with a later period in Ertl’s life, the time directly following his move to Bolivia in the mid-1950s.

The novella opens in 1955, just over a year after Ertl, his wife (Aurelia), and their three daughters (Monika, Heidi and Trixi) travelled to Bolivia to settle in the city of La Paz. I say ‘settle’, however nothing about the family’s new life feels very stable; right from the start they consider themselves outsiders, interlopers from a very different part of the world. Here’s Heidi’s perspective on their situation.

La Paz wasn’t so bad, but it was chaotic and we would never stop being outsiders, people from another world: an old, cold world. (pg. 13)

Keen to embark on a new mission in Bolivia, Hans Ertl sets off in search of Paitití, an old Inca city hidden deep in the midst of the Amazon rainforests. Accompanying him on the visit are his two eldest daughters, Monika and Heidi, plus a fellow adventurer, Rudi, and an entomologist by the name of Miss Burgl.

What starts out as the story of the early stages of the group’s expedition soon morphs into something very different indeed. As the chapters slip by, it becomes increasingly clear that Affections is primarily concerned with the falling apart of Ertl’s family as their lives start to unravel on the page.

Leave, that’s what Papa knew how to do best. Leave, but also come back, like a soldier returns home from the war to gather his strength before going again. – Heidi (pg. 12)

Out of all of us Mama had suffered the most. – Trixi (pg. 32)

In some ways, Affections feels like the literary equivalent of a collage, a series of snapshots and scrapbook entries conveyed by way of a sequence of loosely connected chapters. The role of narrator passes backwards and forwards from Heidi to Trixi to Monika; other sections are reflected through the eyes of some of the other main players in the girls’ lives, most notably Monika’s brother-in-law and brief lover, Reinhard.

While various things happen to the family over the course of some 20 years, Hasbún seems more concerned with feelings and experiences than conventional aspects of plot and character development. In some respects, Affections is a novel about the different phases of our lives, the various endings and new beginnings we all experience as we move from one stage in our transitory existence to the next.

I knew I couldn’t leave without finding Monika first, without convincing her to forget all that, to start a new life with me where nobody knew us. Our parents had done it, and Heidi too, in her own way.

They were the worst years of my life and my only consolation was to convince myself that it was possible to start again far away. They were devastating years and my answer, time and time again, wherever I happened to be, was to make myself think like this. – Trixi (pg. 135)

As a novel, it also has much to say about the various facets of our character, how different people tend to views us, and the challenges of reconciling these different identities into a complete whole. Never is this more relevant than when the focus falls on Monika, a woman who seems to represent so many disparate things to those around her.

Yes, there are people for whom one life is not enough. I often think this, in the darkness of my living room, glass of whiskey in my hand, at the epicentre of my new circumstances. How hard it is to assemble all the different people some people were, to reconcile, for example, the intriguing Monika from the early days with the impossible Monika later on. – Reinhard (pg. 38)

There is a strong sense of dislocation and isolation running through this intriguing collection of snapshots, especially when we hear from Monika herself – the use of a second-person narrative gives her vignettes a very distinctive feel.

You are the fine young thing the businessmen try to seduce, the self-assured sibling who sees one of her sisters every once in a while and has lost all contact with the other, the one she never really got along with. You are the motherless daughter who never stops thinking about her father, half of the time hating him profoundly, and the other half admiring and loving him unconditionally. You are the woman who speaks to the people who turn up at the shelter, who is interested in what they have to say, who is weighed down by their stories, even though they tend to be quiet types, men and women who vanish as silently as they appear. You are the woman who remains a stranger to herself. – Monika (pg 64)

Ultimately, Affections is a mercurial, shapeshifting work, a disorientating novella that raises as many questions as it answers. As a piece of art, it leaves much to the reader’s curiosity and imagination, and that’s no bad thing in my book.

Grant and Stu have also reviewed this one for SLM.

Affections is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

33 thoughts on “Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún (tr. Sophie Hughes)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I like the sound of this one – but then fluid or uncertain identities, and going abroad and being the outsider, are sort of perennial obsessions of mine. You’ve done so well with Spanish Lit Month. Ah, well, maybe next year – it’s something I know shamefully little about.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s an unusual novella, with a structure and style that might not appeal to every reader. However, I genuinely think you would like it, Marina. Yes, shifting identities, relocating and starting over again, and a sense of not belonging anywhere – these are some of the key themes. It’s a thought-provoking little novella.

      This is only my second Spanish Lit Month book this year, but I do have another review planned for later in the week, a Spanish classic which I absolutely loved: The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán. As you say, there’s always next year – although there’s no need to wait till then, especially now you’ve discovered Javier Maris . :)

      Reply
  2. bookbii

    This sounds like a really interesting book, a different way of constructing a ‘story’. I often wonder how, when dealing with literature in translation, the book would read in the original language. Would it be more hypnotic, disjointed? It is hard to know (obviously) unless you read in the original language.
    Anyway, it sounds beautiful irrespective of the linguistic issues. And the quotes you’ve selected are very evocative, almost dream-like. Beautiful review as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, it is quite dreamlike, almost akin to waking up and recalling fragments of loosely connected images and scenes from a dream as you try to piece everything together in your mind. I feel as if I’ve read something very different from the norm with this book. It is an unusual way of telling a story, and kudos to the author and translator for taking a fresh approach.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. Hasbún is pretty new to me as well. I’d seen the Bogata and Granta lists a while back but couldn’t remember all the names. It was only when I noticed Affections in the list of Pushkin’s new releases that I made the connection.

      Reply
  3. Col

    This is new name to me but I’m adding it to my summer list. I’d read quite a bit of Spanish fiction in last couple of years and while wouldn’t want to generalise I think several were different and interesting in style and structure and I read quite a few that seemed to shift balance from plot to mood, character and place I guess your description of ‘mercurial’ would be how I found some of the Spanish work I read – and I have to say enjoyed – hence Hasbun now on my shopping list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. Yes, like you, I’m a little reluctant to generalise, but I do think there are a few similarities between Hasbun’s novella and some of Andres Neuman’s work (Talking to Ourselves, for instance – another novella told from multiple perspectives and voices). Given your interest in Spanish language fiction, I think you would find this an interesting and intriguing read. Would love to hear your thoughts should you get a chance to try it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks madame bibi. There is something unpredictable yet fascinating about this one. It’s a great book for the right reader, so I’m glad to hear that it appeals. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I completely understand, Karen. I would do exactly the same thing if I were about to read it. Looking forward to exchanging perspectives with you once your review goes live. :)

      Reply
  4. erdeaka

    Oh, how interesting! And the writer’s still young and I believe his writing career is still so far ahead. I might like to read this book, but I don’t think I like the idea of using famous figures as characters. It seems like a semi-autobiography to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’ll be interesting to see both what Hasbun writes next and what gets translated into English. I can understand your reluctance to read something like this when it involves real people, and quite prominent ones at that. I guess I just tried to view it as a work of fiction, and on that level I thought it an intriguing read. Always difficult with this type of story, though. :)

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    Great review as always.I agree the novel is very much about the family falling apart and I suppose the structure reflects that. In particular the breakdown of Hans and Monika’s relationship – the two who are most alike.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. It was great to read your take on it this morning once my post went live – always interesting to exchange perspectives with you when we’ve both read the same book! I think it says something about the intriguing nature of this novella that we both picked up on an area of common ground (the breakdown of Ertl’s family) but also some points of difference too. It feels like a book that will create various (possibly contrasting) impressions in the mind depending on each individual reader. That’s interesting in itself, I think.

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    I am a bit uneasy with fiction that focuses on real people who lives lived in contemporary times. With that such fiction can be worthwhile.

    I want to read more Latin American writers. Hasbún sounds very good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand your unease with this idea, Brian, as it can be quite difficult to distinguish between what is known and what is invented or imagined. (Erdeaka mentions something similar in her comment above.) I guess I just tried to read Affections as a work of fiction, and as such I thought it worked well.

      I’ve enjoyed virtually most of the Latin American literature I’ve read to date, and I think it’s given me a bit of an insight into some different cultures. Argentina in particular has a very interesting literary pedigree, well worth exploring. (I should give Richard a shout out here for encouraging me to read a few books from Argentina as part of his annual Argentine lit event.)

      Reply
  7. Guy Savage

    Love that cover. I’ve sort of sworn off reading fiction about real people. I get frustrated by not knowing how much is made up. It’s ok if a real person is mentioned but other than that, I’d rather read a bio.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The cover’s terrific, isn’t it? That’s what drew me to the book in the first place I must admit.

      Yes, I think you would find this a somewhat frustrating read given your preference for a bio/memoir on something like this. Also, Hasbun leaves quite a lot unsaid. That’s fine up to a point, but I suspect you might be left craving more insight into the motivations of the key players.

      Reply
  8. realthog

    You’ve uncovered yet another book that, to me, was completely unknown, and you’ve given a marvelous account of it. Many thanks!

    My bank manager may disagree . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, you’re welcome! You might find the Hans Ertl angle particularly interesting given his background in cinematography. That said, the novella is much more concerned with the falling apart of Ertl’s family than his work as a filmmaker. It’s an intriguing book though – I think Stu was reminded of some of Werner Herzog’s films when he read it.

      Reply
  9. Emma

    Great review.

    Like Guy I’m not keen on reading romancized versions of real people. I’ll check the writer out, though. He’s new to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. Totally appreciate where you’re coming from on this. Hasbun makes it clear that it’s a work of fiction, but I completely understand your reluctance to read it given the link to real people. It’s not a particularly romanticised vision of their lives, in fact it’s pretty downbeat for most of the time, but it is fiction.

      On the basis of this novella, Hasbun’s an interesting writer, definitely worth bearing in mind. He’s written some short stories as well but I’m not sure if they’re available in either French or English.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great. I’m not sure that I would recommend this novella to every reader as it is somewhat unusual, but I do think you would find it both interesting and intriguing. It sort of fits with your leaning towards literature that touches on the cross-cultural experience, so I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think of it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. Identity is one of my favourite themes in literature, and you’re right in thinking this novella has a fresh take on the subject. It’s definitely worth considering if you’re interested in discovering new voices in fiction.

      Reply
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