It’s a new month on the blog, and September’s first review also brings a trip to new territory for me. Today sees us heading off to Bolivia to spend some time in the company of a rather extraordinary family. It’s a story told by a multitude of voices, and it’s very clear that these are interesting times. Whether we’re in the capital or the jungle, danger lies just around the corner…
Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections (translated by Sophie Hughes, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) begins in the Bolivian capital of La Paz in 1955. Hans Ertl, a German film-maker and explorer who brought his whole family across the ocean a few years earlier, has just arrived home after another extended absence in the mountains. His presence is to prove short-lived, though, as he heads off again in search of a legendary lost city, taking his elder daughters, Monika and Heidi, with him, leaving his long-suffering wife Aurelia at home with the youngest daughter, Trixi.
Affections is not your average family drama, though. The first half of the book slowly sets the scene, only for the story to take off in the second part. You see, Bolivia in the 1960s and 70s was a rather turbulent place, and it turns out that Monika is to find herself in the thick of the political and social turmoil. As the family drifts apart, so does the country, leaving chasms that will prove almost impossible to bridge once the dust has settled.
Hasbún’s novel is relatively short, but it’s very effective and a pleasure to read. While Affections is based on real people, the writer has used them as the basis for his tale, reimagining their relationships around certain infamous real-life events. Ertl and his family did emigrate to Bolivia in the 1950s (as a Wikipedia search will confirm), and despite initial adjustment issues, they became part of a German diaspora, a fortunate elite in a poor country.
Our first view of the story is as a description of three very different sisters, gradually growing apart. The middle sister, Heidi, is homely and cheerful, her crush on Rudi, her father’s assistant, setting the course for her later life (and eventual disillusionment). Her younger sister Trixi is close to her mother, and having arrived in Bolivia at a young age, she makes a life for herself in La Paz, even if she does seem to drift through a languid, goalless existence.
However, from the very beginning, it’s clear that our attention will mainly be focused on the eldest sister, Monika:
Yes, she’s the only one who matters now, the misunderstood child, the chaotic, rebellious teenager, the woman who went on to lose all perspective and no longer knew where to stop and ended up hurting herself and others.//Yes, if you pressed me I would say this is the definition of her that sticks: the woman who went on to cause so much hurt.
p.41 (Pushkin Press, 2016)
Larger than life, fierce and independent, Monika is close to her father but able to stand up to him, and her inherited sense of adventure eventually develops into an attachment to a cause. Yet this description of a woman who brings chaos wherever she goes is very close to the truth.
This was a time of revolutions and uprisings in Latin-America, and while the Castros and Guevara changed society elsewhere, Bolivia is also affected. Reinhard, Monika’s brother-in-law, senses that a change is on its way:
Reinhard is critical of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement and its methods. He says it’s not enough to give land to the Indians, and less meaningful still to let them vote (“Vote for whom?” he asks, when your husband challenges him, “Vote for which of the little white men exploiting them?”). He tells us it’s brewing, that those of us present should hold onto our hats and our wallets, should be trembling in our boots. You’ve never heard anyone speak like this before, his words unsettle you. (p.65)
Monika is infected by his beliefs, eventually becoming more heavily involved with the leftist struggle (far more involved than Reinhard himself) than she could ever have thought.
While the second half of Affections is set in a time of turmoil, the text largely avoids the actual fighting and atrocities. Instead, Hasbún focuses on the spaces between the murders and the thoughts of the people involved. He uses a variety of narrators and narratorial styles (something translator Sophie Hughes will have been very used to from her work on Laia Jufresa’s similarly structured Umami), with Reinhard’s repetitive monologues (//Yes…) particularly distinct. The obvious stand-out among the characters is Monika, not only because she appears throughout the other characters’ sections, but also because her strand is written in the second person, distancing the reader from the main focus of the novel. In a way, the other characters appear to be in orbit around her (even if she’s the one constantly on the move).
Looking back at what I’ve written, I suspect that I haven’t really explained the book as well as I might have, but that’s partly owing to the nature of Hasbún’s novel. A lot remains unsaid, and it’s up to the reader to decide what to take from the story. The writing is excellent, calm and measured, yet compelling, whether it concerns descriptions of rainforest adventures, nights of passion or the tense wait for battle. As we circle around to end the novel with Hans, who has been absent for much of the book, we are forced to reflect on the events of the years separating it from the start. Affections, then, is a work which can be read in several ways – but it’s certainly one which can be read many times too.