What motivates writers to borrow their stories from reality? Perhaps a need to understand a particular person or event; sometimes simply the pleasure of recreation, to novelise hostory; and on other occasions, to provide the anchor for formal daring, in the same way that landscape once allowed painters the licence to look beyond the photographic towards the impressionistic. Rodrigo Hasbun’s second novel, Affections (the first to be translated into English, by Sophie Hughes) falls into the latter category. Its ‘real-life’ character is Hans Ertl, a German film-maker who left Germany in 1952 for Bolivia having been too closely associated with the Nazi regime as a war photographer (he also worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Olympia, and was her lover for a while). He continued to film in Bolivia until he lost his most recent work when a bridge collapsed in 1961 and promptly turned to farming instead, living until the year 2000. (For a more detailed account of his life you can read The Last Days of a Nazi-Era Photographer here – in an interesting link to Hasbun’s novel it refers to Ertl as an “unaffectionate” father).
His role as a father is central to the story Hasbun tells: Affections concerns itself largely with Ertl’s family, his wife and three daughters, and, in particular, the eldest, Monika, as her sister, Heidi recognises:
“With her recurring panic attacks, she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters.”
The novel is largely told in the voices of the daughters, in chapters which often address the reader directly, but not each other. Only when we reach Monika’s consciousness are we kept at one person remove:
“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.”
Monika’s character is presented in such divided terms from the start:
“On the days when she was in good spirits, I envied my sister’s lightness, her ability to make friends with anyone. I couldn’t understand how her good nature could have such a terrible flipside. It didn’t make sense to me that the sunny and despairing girl were one and the same.”
Monika marries but the marriage is a failure, leading only to a miscarriage and an affair with her brother-in-law:
“I wanted to believe that what happened later wouldn’t have if she had become a mother.”
For Monika has her own Wikipedia entry as a guerrilla fighter (and assassin of an army Colonel). Monika, like her father, is attracted to extremes, though in Bolivia, Ertl had withdrawn from politics, and refuses to help the guerrilla movement when Monika asks him. Such connections with the past are perhaps best seen in Trixi who is offered her first cigarette by her mother when she is twelve, and continues with the habit:
“…to fill Mama’s shoes for the duration of those cigarettes, because it was when I smoked that I was most like her.”
In that same moment of the first cigarette, her mother warns her to be “suspicious of anyone in too much of a hurry”:
“The moment she said this I thought of Papa and maybe Monika too.”
The novel becomes a series of echoes through the generations. This is perhaps why Hasbun almost entirely removes the politics – both from Ertl and Monika. Monika’s motivations remain opaque making her actions seem fated – which, of course, is another reason writers write from reality: there is no escaping the ending, something Ertl realises as he supervises the digging of his own grave.
In discussing his story ‘So Much Water So Far From Home’, Hasbun said, “I think that, ultimately, this is a story about memory, about how we exist in the memories of others and how others (the living and the dead) exist in ours.” This same concern permeates Affections:
“It’s not true 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.”
Affections is a fascinating novel which seems to flicker before the reader’s eyes like a fire, creating as many shadows as it removes.