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Rodrigo Hasbún: Los afectos (Affections)

Affections is something of an odd usage in English. We use the word in the singular but far less in the plural. In Spanish it seems a bit more common in the plural – there is even another work of art with this title – a dance and music piece. The title therefore gives little clue as to what the book is about. Perhaps, if we were permitted a longer title, we might go for something like complicated family relationships breaking down but that would not cover all that this book has to offer and would be too ungainly. Indeed, though the book is about complicated family relationships breaking down, it has a lot else to offer, from Leni Riefenstahl to the search for a lost Inca city, from Che Guevara to excessive cigarette smoking.

The story is about the complicated and real family, a German family, the Ertls. They are Hans and Aurelia, husband and wife, and their daughters Monika, Heidi and Trixi. Hans had worked as a cameraman for Leni Riefenstahl but now (early 1950s) is finding it difficult to get work and decides to emigrate, with his family, to Bolivia, despite the fact that they do not speak Spanish and have no contacts there. Hans was an inveterate explorer. He had recently been to Nanga Parbat. He now wants to discover the lost city of Paititi. He sets up what seems to be quite an amateurish group, though there is an entomologist, Miss Burgl, and Rudi Braun who had been on similar expeditions. However, there is no archaeologist. He decides to take Monika, who has been having panic attacks, as this might help her. Heidi, who is the narrator at this point (the narrator varies throughout the book) also wants to go but her father refuses to take her but she ends up going along. Aurelia, who is clearly unwell (she will later die of cancer) and not at all happy in La Paz (she cannot cope with the Spanish language) is left alone with the thirteen-tear old Trixi. At their solitary Christmas dinner, she gives Trixi her first cigarette, something that will have extreme consequences for Trixi, who becomes a hardcore smoker and tries more than once (unsuccessfully) to give it up. The expedition is a flop. Heidi tries, without success, to seduce Rudi. The expedition has various problems and finds something but it is clearly not Paititi.

At this point, the story jumps to Reinhard. We learn that Aurelia had come to work for his rich parents in their business. He does not get on with his family and has moved out. As a result, Monika meets his brother first and marries him. As Reinhard says, she looks like the loneliest woman in the world at her wedding. Only Trixi of her family comes to the wedding. The marriage is something she immediately regrets. He cannot get an erection and sees no reason not to live with his parents. We learn that Reinhard has had an affair with her, that Hans has left Aurelia and gone off with Miss Burgl, the entomologist (another of virtually all the relationships in this book that will not last) and that Heidi has finally managed to seduce Rudi and they have gone back to Germany, where they run a successful business but not a successful marriage. As Reinhard says to Monika You didn’t find anything, never got to Paitití, but at the same time you found too much, every one of you but while Heidi and Hans found lovers, it is not clear to Reinhard what Monika found.

We also learn that, at this point, Monika becomes involved in good works, setting up a charity to help the needy and manages to get a fair amount of money from her husband and the German community. We continue to follow the family, with each of the sisters narrating. Aurelia dies. Hans tries various things, most of which are less than successful and while he seems to love his daughters, he has a very troubled relationship with all three. Trixi remains alone, smoking, drifting around in her life, unsure of who she is and what she wants, only knowing that she, of all the family members, really loves her family. Heidi is in Germany with her husband and four children and then without her husband. However, the focus is now on Monika.

The others gradually find out that she belongs to the guerilla group associated with Che Guevara and has an affair with Guido Álvaro Peredo Leigue (link in Spanish), known as Inti, after Guevara’s murder. Inti is also murdered and this politicises her even more. She tries to use her father to help her comrades but they have a row and never meet again. Trixi keeps thinking that she sees her in La Paz and wants very much to meet her again. Both Hans and Trixi are affected, as people will have nothing to do with the father and sister of a terrorist.

What makes this book such a first-class work is the complexity of the relationships. Most of the family members seem to have some affection for one another, yet somehow, who they are, what they are and what they do in life seems to drive them apart. They are obviously not the only family, real or fictional, to be unable to live together under the same roof, despite having some affection for one another. However, Hasbún skilfully shows the nature of this complicated relationship. While much of the book inevitably revolves around Monika, who starts out with the panic attacks, goes on the expedition, makes an unsatisfactory marriage and then gets into concern for the needy before finally joining the guerilla movement, the other family members all play their role and all have their issues. That the three marriages that the family members contract all end in failure is only part of the problem, as it is clear that all five are looking for something which they not only do not find but are generally not even sure what it is that they are looking for.

As the Wikipedia links above show, of the real Ertls Hans and Monika had a certain amount of fame, with Hans dying at a ripe old age and Monika killed by the Bolivian army. Beatriz (Trixi in this book) did go on to marry and have children and, as we know from this book, Heidi also had children. Hasbún makes it clear at the beginning that his story is inspired by historical figures but is a work of fiction and does not claim to provide a faithful portrait of any of the historical characters.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Literatura Random House
First English publication by Pushkin Press in 2016