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