Affections

Affections (Rodrigo Hasbún)

This week I started reading the deliciously post-apocalyptic yet super Guns Germs & Steel-like Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankindwhich I hope to finish soon. I finished Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún last week, but the more I think about it, the more I admire it. It strikes me as a book that must have been very difficult to both conceive of and write–I wonder if that was the case. It was translated by Sophie Hughes, who also translated The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horseanother short, deeply strange and wonderful novella, which would make for powerful re-reading during these troubled times.

Even though Affections bluntly advises us that it “is not, nor does it attempt to be, a faithful portrait of any member of the Erlt family,” I highly recommend that people still look them up on wikipedia. Even though certain stories that are vaguely connected to the family don’t appear in this book – specifically Nazis helping the CIA hunt down Che Guevara (!?) – still, they are worth knowing. I mean, seriously!! Even Bolaño couldn’t make this shit up.

The story that DOES appear in this book took a while for me to get into – I started the book and put it down at least two times. But once I knew the historical background, that helped a lot. I read somewhere (who knows where, somewhere in the depths of the Internet) that the book was initially a lot longer, but the author cut it down to its bare bones. If this is true, then man, what a brave, badass choice.

Poetic, fragmentary, vignette-like: these are all good terms that could describe the book. Notes I wrote in the margins include: Werner Herzog meets The Mosquito Coast, Aguirre Wrath of God, Death in the Andes.

There’s a rotating cast of narrators: Heidi, the middle daughter; Trixi, the youngest; Monika, the oldest daughter and arguably the main character; and Reinhard, the brother-in-law (you might notice that Hans, the father and the family’s main claim to fame, is absent from that list–an interesting and inevitably significant choice). Monika’s chapters are narrated in “you” style, while Reinhard’s are narrated as though he’s responding to interview questions. We begin with the father’s expedition into the Bolivian jungle in search of a legendary lost city. We end with workers on an isolated and rural hacienda, digging what is mostly likely a grave–for who, we never know for sure (though we certainly have some guesses).

The story in here could have easily been fattened up to 300 pages, but as is, it works as a strange kind of poetry in its thinness. I underlined so many sentences in this book:

It’s not true that our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most. (135)

Maybe to become an adult is precisely this: to be ashamed of your body and its revolts and emergencies… to always fear the worst. (130)

I found nostalgia served a purpose. To feel that life had been worth it and to make the present fuller somehow. (126)

The writing is simple and straightforward, yet haunting. The grave-digging in the final chapter is, in particular, an image that will stay with me for a while.

I loved the theme of feeling out of place in this book, of not quite fitting in. The family eats sauerkraut with their tortillas, yet “on the rare occasions we were obliged to speak Spanish it felt fake.” (16) The maid is taught German recipes because no one really cares for Bolivian food. The sense of place is also well done, particularly with the descriptions of La Paz in the beginning.

There’s a big theme in the book of how to grow into your own person – how to become the kind of person you want to be. The author touches upon this idea in this interview, commenting that “in AFFECTIONS there are characters trying on different masks and disguises throughout the novel. They’re searching for themselves the whole time, and the changes they go through are quite drastic. I suppose the same thing can be said of all of us. We take a while to become ourselves, to accept who we are or can be.”

Monika’s sections especially deal with this theme:

Was this what becoming an adult was? Taking decisions and responsibility for the things you do or stop doing? … At twenty-one, can you call yourself an adult? At twenty-one, can you feel that living, when all’s said and done, means belonging to yourself, and that everything that came before was a kind of dream? Why try to forget it if it was a reasonably happy dream? … Increasingly, you feel that your life can fit into a single sentence, or at least a few. The ex-depressive, the quasi-Bolivian. A pitiful sum, whichever way you look at it. (62-64)

Alongside this narrative thread concerning personal growth and development, there’s also the concurrent theme of BIG (macro?) history, which Heidi reflects on during the jungle expedition in the opening chapter:

Part of the route had been cleared centuries ago by the Incas. It was terrifying to think of it, it was fascinating and sad. It was all of these things, too, to realize that we were lost in the heart of a foreign country, so far from home. The expedition had only just begun and it was easy to lose perspective, to forget that what we were doing day in and day out was all part of a bigger plan. (23)

Indeed, how do you maintain perspective when you tell a historical story? What details do you focus on? Is the “bigger plan” what matters? The book focuses more on the development of Trixi’s smoking habit than it does on Monika’s development into a revolutionary guerrilla. The nationalist revolution, in which Indians gain the right to vote, and armed conflicts in the mines are referred to only passingly. Who’s to say what are the things that make up a life? Who gets to tell history, and what experiences do you focus on when you’re narrating it?

I think most people might find this book challenging if they know little about Latin American history. But if you’re interested in guerrilla stories, or Latin America of the 60s, this is a highly recommended read. To me, it worked as a fascinating example of a different way to narrate historical fiction: in a highly sparse, fragmentary style, rather than detailed and sweeping.

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