Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun

July has been Spanish Literature Month and while I’ve been following all the wonderful posts by other bloggers, I thought I would fail miserably to join in this year. However, I’ve managed to squeeze one Spanish language book in, and it’s one that’s been receiving a lot of coverage. “Affections”, written by Rodrigo Hasbun and translated by Sophie Hughes, is published by Pushkin Press, who very kindly provided my copy via a giveaway on Twitter; the book is also the winner of an English PEN award. Hasbun is a Bolivian author, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that the book is set there; though the subject matter is anything but predictable…

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“Affections” tells the story of Hans Ertl and his family; Ertl is a photographer, famous for his involvement with Leni Riefenstahl and her “Olympia” film, on which he worked. Post-war Germany is therefore not a particularly comfortable place for him, and he takes his wife Aurelia plus daughters Monika, Heidi and Trixi off to Bolivia (a country known for housing exiles, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Before long, he has set off on an expedition deep into the Amazon rainforest, in search of a lost Inca city, Paititi. Monika and Heidi accompany him, and this signals the start of the family’s disintegration. However, Bolivia itself is not a particularly stable place in which to live, and as the girls grow older a revolution takes place. By this time each daughter has taken her own path away from the family, and their fates will be very different depending on their beliefs and actions.

Hasbun has produced a remarkable book here; although short (142 pages) it has considerable depth, and the inventive structure is very revealing. There is no linear narrative; instead, short chapters told from differing viewpoints move the story on very effectively. Monika’s chapters are sometimes in the second person; Heidi relates in the third person; there is a character called Reinhard, Monika’s brother-in-law, who tells his story in short bursts, each section starting with the word “Yes” and ending with // to divide them up; and sometimes an omniscient narrator steps in. What might have been a disjointed story actually works very well; each new vignette cleverly fills in the gaps in the lives of the rest of the characters, letting us know sometimes almost in passing of fates dramatic and prosaic.

For there is plenty of drama here. Ertl was a real person, and his daughter Monika was a real guerilla, involved in the Bolivian revolution. It was a harsh conflict that brought about the death of Che Guevara (mentioned in passing here) and many, many others; and Hasbun does not hide the horrors that went on although he never lingers. As time goes on, the world changes and the surviving members of the family deal with the many disappointments in their lives – failed marriages, death, poverty and lack of direction. The family is eventually scattered, with Hans Ertl left in the end with only memories – and as Trixi remarks, these are a place where “things get distorted and lost.”

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At the start of the book, Hasbun places a disclaimer, acknowledging that although the Ertl family were real, his book is a fictionalization of their lives, and it’s certainly a most effective one. As for the title, I guess it refers to the affections felt within a family, which aren’t strong enough here to keep it together; other loves, other passions and beliefs draw the girls away from their father. The dislocation they feel at being pulled away from their native country probably contributes to the disintegration of the Ertls and Aurelia, in particular, never seems to fit into South America. And Hans and Monika, described as a “phantom” and a “mystery” in the book, seemed to be constantly searching for something unachievable and almost undefined. There’s so much bubbling under the surface of the narrative which keeps drawing me back to it – the relationship between Hans and Monika who seem in many ways very alike; again the closeness of Aurelia and Trixi, drawn together by being left out of things; and the middle-child syndrome of Heidi, fleeing the nest to try and make a more normal family of her own. As I said, there’s an awful lot there in such a short book!

Before I read “Affections” I’d never heard of any of the Ertl family, so I read this as pure fiction which I think is a good way to do so. It’s a rich and haunting portrait of a family living through unusual times and events, then slipping into a variety of dark fates. A remarkable achievement by Hasbun, particularly in such a short book, and highly recommended!

For other views, you can read the excellent posts by Jacqui, Grant and Stu.

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