A German family heads to Bolivia after World War II, sparking decades of internal strife amid political revolution.
Hasbún's brisk, sensitive U.S. debut is a fictionalized story of the Ertl clan, which emigrated to escape the ruins and political embarrassments of Nazism. (Patriarch Hans worked as an assistant to propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.) But Hans’ dream of exploring a new land absent politics slowly erodes. Central to that shift is his daughter Monika, who, after a failed marriage, joins Che Guevara’s revolutionaries; “she felt that she had at last found her place in the world.” Her decision, and the violence that follows it, creates a blast radius around the rest of the family, especially her sisters, Trixi and Heidi. But though Hasbún’s narrative is rooted in politics, its key strengths are his remarkable command of time and characterization. The novel is short but gallops across a half-century’s worth of transformations in Bolivia, and sections narrated by individual characters are marked by a surprising depth of emotional detail given the story’s brevity. Reinhard, the brother of Monika’s husband, can’t reconcile “the intriguing Monika from the early days with the impossible Monika later on.” Heidi describes the disoriented family as like “soldiers searching for a war, or interplanetary beings,” while Trixi laments the “doses of horror” that Monika’s radicalization created; Monika herself hardens over time, becoming someone with “no emotion, no memory.” More detail about each of these characters would be welcome; the book feels at times like an epic historical saga that’s been cut down to size by an especially aggressive editor. But in stripping down the story to its barest essence, Hasbún has intensified the effects of each individual scene; the volumes' worth of drama contained in the family’s life emerge by suggestion and implication.
A one-sitting tale of fragmented relationships with a broad scope, delivered with grace and power.