Rodrigo Hasbún’s first novel in English, Affections, is barely 130 pages long.
When looking at this tiny slip of a book it’s hard to imagine the decades of compressed space in its pages. Exploring the true story of Hans Ertl and his family of German expatriates in Bolivia, Hasbún’s novel not only explores 50 years of Bolivian history but 50 years of family history as well. Jungle explorations are mounted and abandoned, governments are threatened, people are murdered, Che Guevara’s hands are chopped off, and, maybe more importantly to Hasbún, a young girl smokes her first cigarette.
“I was very interested in those things you won’t find in a history book,” Hasbún says. The cigarette Trixi smokes with her mom or the first night Monika spends with her husband. I think those moments are as important as the big historical moments.”
And Hasbún’s book has plenty of big historical moments. Hans Ertl was a cameraman for German cinema pioneer Leni Riefenstahl. During WWII, Hasbún was also deployed to film German General Erwin Rommel’s exploits in North Africa. After the war, Ertl moved his wife and daughters to Bolivia, where the youngest still lives today.
The book begins with Hans’s ill-fated and dangerous attempts to film documentaries in the Bolivian jungle, but the focus of the book soon shifts to his daughters. Monika Ertl, the closest this multi-narrator book has to a main character, goes through a political awakening and joins the Leftist guerilla movement. Monika is soon hunted by the Bolivian army and comes to be known as “Che Guevara’s Avenger.” As she sinks further into the jungle, the family grows more and more apart.
Hasbún has pulled off a rare feat for an author dealing with historical figures. He doesn’t let the history overrun the people. “As a novelist, my goal is to be the closest to my characters,” Hasbún says. “That’s what I aim to do. To be by their side and understand what they were thinking. I knew the social and political tensions of the country would be in the novel, so that meant I could pay more attention to what it means to be a daughter, or a mother, or father, or sister. Those relations were what I was interested in.”
Hasbún explores these relations by telling each chapter from a different narrator’s point of view, often with years and years of time between the chapters. The daughters grow up fast, start to develop their own interests and fears, and somehow Hans’s brash daring fades into conservative reticence.
For Monika Ertl the turning point comes when she realizes she’s in an unhappy marriage and the work she’s doing at a local shelter isn’t making enough of a difference. With each character, Hasbún dives right into their psyches and shows us what makes them tick. Even more impressive, each narrator has a unique style and an unmistakable voice. Monika’s narration tends to be sharp and self-reflexive: “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, man and women who vanish as silently as they appear.”
It’s not surprising to learn that Hasbún wrote a lot more than ended up in the final book. “I edited what I had as if I were a filmmaker working with footage,” Hasbún says. “ ‘What will I keep?’ ‘What will I pull out?’ That was a crucial moment in the writing of the novel.”
In many ways, Affections has an epic cinematic feel and that might have a lot to do with Hasbún’s preoccupations as a writer. “When I was becoming a writer, watching movies was as important to me as reading books. I think my literary education has a lot to do with film. I think it’s as important. I’m interested in the editing, where to cut, what effect you are provoking when you stop where you stop.”
The final chapter of Affections takes place at the dawn of the 21st century. Most of the family is dead or dying, Heidi Ertl has moved back to Germany, and only Trixie remains in Bolivia. As the novel comes to a close the reader is left not with the feel of a history lesson, but instead the sense that they’re closing the book on a family they know very well. Although, maybe it’s not quite the final chapter. Trixi and Heidi Ertl, after all, are both still alive.
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work has appeared in the Morning News, the Rumpus, the Texas Observer, the San Antonio Express-News, and many others. He’s working on his first novel.