Rodrigo Hasbún - the story of the eccentric, fascinating Ertl clan, headed by the egocentric and extraordinary Hans, once the cameraman for the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl

Rodrigo Hasbún, Affections, Trans. by Sophie Hughes, Pushkin Press, 2016.


'He is not a good writer, thank goodness. He is a great one' - Jonathan Safran Foer

A gripping novel about an unusual family's breakdown, set in 1950s-60s South America
Loosely based on real events, Affections tells the story of the eccentric, fascinating Ertl family, headed by the egocentric and extraordinary Hans, once Leni Riefenstahl's famous cameraman and Rommel's 'personal photographer'. Having fled Germany shortly after the country's defeat in the war, the family now lives in Bolivia. However, shortly after their arrival Hans - an enthusiastic adventurer and mountaineer - decides to embark on an expedition in search of Paitití, a legendary Inca city. The failure of their outlandish quest into the depths of the Amazon rainforest proves fateful, initiating the end of a family whose subsequent voyage of discovery ends up eroding everything which once held it together.
Against the backdrop of the both optimistic and violent 1950s and 1960s, Affections traces the Ertls' inevitable breakdown through the various erratic trajectories of each family member - from Hans and his constant engagement in colossal projects, to his daughter Monika, heir to his adventurous spirit, who joins the Bolivian Marxist guerrillas and becomes known as 'Che Guevara's avenger' - and the story of a woman in search of herself, the story of the heartrending relationship between a father and a daughter, the story of a family adrift.

'Hasbún's writing has a strange power. He likes to reach into the darkest places. Reading him is like... a journey to the brink of an abyss' - El País

“Dark, deep, disturbing. No concessions, no sweeteners: here everything hurts. Through this ably crafted family saga, Hasbún manages to explore the permanent conflicts and contradictions of a whole nation.” —Andrés Neuman

"In Affections, a family elegy is woven into an epitaph for the radical politics of South America and the result is an act of literary hypnosis you won't soon forget."  —Adam Haslett

"Concise yet wild, haunting yet exuberantly full of life, Rodrigo Hasbún's Affections achieves all sorts of artful, intoxicating contradictions. What a gloriously unpredictable book." —Idra Novey

“A dark, stunning novel, Affections is charged by a brilliant kaleidoscope of perspectives, the voices of exiles, a post-war German family in Bolivia. Hasbún has spun a tale of displacement, of political turmoil, in which the characters’ motives are as complicated as the Bolivian jungle they explore. It’s a fascinating book." —Lynne Tillman

"It's hard to decide which character is more fascinating in Hasbún's masterful blend of history and fiction about a German family living in La Paz in the decades after the war. As the quick-paced narrative covers from the search for a lost city in the Amazon to the brutal guerrillas in the Bolivian jungle, the inner lives of each family member build up to enormous emotional payoff. This is sharp storytelling, both in the political and intimate fronts." —Daniel Galera

Affections is a masterpiece, its spare mosaic narrative mesmerizes and brilliantly explodes in the reader's imagination like slow fireworks that will never fade. With its Chekovian emotional intimacy, the razor sharp and tragic political insight of a Coetzee or Bolaño, the seamless enchantment of a Dinesen tale, this novel feels timeless.” —Francisco Goldman

"This is a finely atmospheric book...It’s a work of sympathetic imagination, written with cool economy, elegance and understanding. It’s a reconstruction of real lives, real historical events, but Hasbún’s achievement is to make it perfectly fictional, which is to say truer than fact. I read it straight through first, with no idea of its historical truth, no knowledge of Hans Ertl beyond the name, no memory of the woman who in Hamburg assassinated the Bolivian diplomat who had been the policeman who ordered the hands of the dead Che Guevara be cut off. Learning of this made the second reading interesting in a different way, but didn’t enrich it. The truth of fiction of this quality is that it reminds you how much of life that really matters goes on in the mind and heart." The Scotsman (UK)

Los afectos is a miracle of writing: Rodrigo Hasbún can concentrate two continents, fifty years of history and the collapse of a family in just one hundred pages. He works with extreme delicacy on the Erlts’ biography by creating a literary version of them which is wonderful for its consistency and clarity.” —Giorgio Fontana

“With a direct, unvarnished style, harsh in some way, but with a great sense of rhythm, the author hooks the reader until the very ending of the novel, which is unexpected as much as suspended." —Marco Ostoni

“Hasbún never tricks the readers, but he surprises them, and displays his heroes with a sort of warm coldness which plays with our curiosity and lets us freely imagine what’s left unsaid.” —Goffredo Fofi

Hans Ertl was the director of photography for Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia. Though never a member of the Nazi Party, he also worked as the official photographer for Marshal Rommel and the Afrika Korps. After the war he was blacklisted in Germany and in 1950 he emigrated with his wife and three daughters to South America, first to Chile and then Bolivia. There he made documentary films, one about the search for a lost Inca city, and then bought a farm where he would live until he died in his nineties. The oldest daughter, Monika, was his favourite, working with him on his documentaries. She married another German exile, a dull businessman. Oppressed by the poverty and social inequalities of Bolivia, she founded an orphanage and was then drawn into radical politics. Adoring and hero-worshipping Che Guevara, she became a guerrilla fighter or terrorist and later his avenger. Her commitment separated her from the father she had loved. She was killed in an ambush by the security forces. The two other sisters led more normal lives, Heidi returning to Germany where she became a successful businesswoman, the youngest,Trixi, remaining unhappily in Bolivia. This is tremendous material for a novel, dramatic and full of moral complexity. No wonder the young Bolivian novelist Rodrigo Hasbún was attracted to it. What is remarkable, however, is what he has made of it. The easy option, which someone less talented and original might have taken, would have been to write a political thriller. All the material is here in waiting for such a book that, well done, would have sold in airports worldwide. Nazi background, exotic locations, Che Guevara, police brutality, a beautiful and idealistic assassin; altogether a rich stew. Maybe somebody will still write that novel, heavily weighted with research, and it will be a big success.Hasbún’s success is of a different order. He has written a spare narrative, little more than a novella in length, in short, impressionistic chapters, spoken through the voices of Monika (addressing herself as “you”), the other daughters, the brother-in-law who loved her too late and lost her, and an unidentified narrative voice. Everything in the drama is here counterpointed with the ordinariness of life in a land where you don’t feel at home and yet seek to belong. The title indicates where his interest lies. Affections is the theme, affections not strong enough to hold a family together. The father is presented as a “phantom”; you’re always aware of him and he is always slipping out of sight. Monika is a mystery. What turns a beautiful, intelligent girl, so close to her father, into an activist, terrorist and assassin? Events and the reflections they give rise to are presented to us, now in memory, now in a shifting present. But things get “distorted and lost in memory.” “It’s not true,” Trixi thinks, “that memory is a safe place.” “We end up,” she says, ”turning away from the people we love the most.” She does so painfully and reluctantly. The middle sister, Heidi, does so determinedly. But actions have consequences for other people. You get blamed for what you aren’t yourself responsible for. Trixi comes to the sad conclusion that “knowing how to be alone was my one great achievement in life”. Or perhaps that’s not so sad, but a sort of success. Hasbún is a writer who invites you to look at the other side of the coin. This is a finely atmospheric book, admirably translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes. It’s a work of sympathetic imagination, written with cool economy, elegance and understanding. It’s a reconstruction of real lives, real historical events, but Hasbún’s achievement is to make it perfectly fictional, which is to say truer than fact. I read it straight through first, with no idea of its historical truth, no knowledge of Hans Ertl beyond the name, no memory of the woman who in Hamburg assassinated the Bolivian diplomat who had been the policeman who ordered the hands of the dead Che Guevara be cut off. Learning of this made the second reading interesting in a different way, but didn’t enrich it. The truth of fiction of this quality is that it reminds you how much of life that really matters goes on in the mind and heart. - Allan Massie

The Ertl family produced two infamous members whose lives are fictionalized in Hasbún’s moody and spare novel. Hans Ertl was a famous Nazi cinematographer exiled to Bolivia after World War II, where he became obsessed with finding the Lost City of Paititi. His eldest daughter, Monika, who accompanied him on an expedition to find the mythological land, married into a wealthy family before becoming radicalized, joining the Marxist revolutionary movement, and becoming a guerilla fighter. All of this is known as fact, but through his measured and oddly ethereal writing (reminiscent somewhat of Paulo Coelho), Hasbún creates a sort of double exposure of the Ertl family’s slow demise over the upheaval roiling through South America. The impact of Hans’s restlessness on his family—his three daughters and their mother—frames the narrative, which unfolds through multiple points of view. Somehow, it is Trixi, the sister who stayed behind with her mother while the rest of the family sought Paititi, whose staid narrative provides the most powerful moments: from her unhappy, cancerous mother deliberately introducing her to cigarettes at age 12, to the devastating paragraph in which Monika corrects Trixi’s naive belief that her older sister’s lover died accidentally: “They kicked his spine until it snapped.” This is an inventive, powerful novel.  - Publishers Weekly

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.  - Kirkus Reviews
Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections (translated by Sophie Hughes, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) begins in the Bolivian capital of La Paz in 1955.  Hans Ertl, a German film-maker and explorer who brought his whole family across the ocean a few years earlier, has just arrived home after another extended absence in the mountains.  His presence is to prove short-lived, though, as he heads off again in search of a legendary lost city, taking his elder daughters, Monika and Heidi, with him, leaving his long-suffering wife Aurelia at home with the youngest daughter, Trixi.
Affections is not your average family drama, though.  The first half of the book slowly sets the scene, only for the story to take off in the second part.  You see, Bolivia in the 1960s and 70s was a rather turbulent place, and it turns out that Monika is to find herself in the thick of the political and social turmoil.  As the family drifts apart, so does the country, leaving chasms that will prove almost impossible to bridge once the dust has settled.
Hasbún’s novel is relatively short, but it’s very effective and a pleasure to read.  While Affections is based on real people, the writer has used them as the basis for his tale, reimagining their relationships around certain infamous real-life events.  Ertl and his family did emigrate to Bolivia in the 1950s (as a Wikipedia search will confirm), and despite initial adjustment issues, they became part of a German diaspora, a fortunate elite in a poor country.
Our first view of the story is as a description of three very different sisters, gradually growing apart.  The middle sister, Heidi, is homely and cheerful, her crush on Rudi, her father’s assistant, setting the course for her later life (and eventual disillusionment).  Her younger sister Trixi is close to her mother, and having arrived in Bolivia at a young age, she makes a life for herself in La Paz, even if she does seem to drift through a languid, goalless existence.
However, from the very beginning, it’s clear that our attention will mainly be focused on the eldest sister, Monika:
Yes, she’s the only one who matters now, the misunderstood child, the chaotic, rebellious teenager, the woman who went on to lose all perspective and no longer knew where to stop and ended up hurting herself and others.//Yes, if you pressed me I would say this is the definition of her that sticks: the woman who went on to cause so much hurt.
p.41 (Pushkin Press, 2016)
Larger than life, fierce and independent, Monika is close to her father but able to stand up to him, and her inherited sense of adventure eventually develops into an attachment to a cause.  Yet this description of a woman who brings chaos wherever she goes is very close to the truth.
This was a time of revolutions and uprisings in Latin-America, and while the Castros and Guevara changed society elsewhere, Bolivia is also affected.  Reinhard, Monika’s brother-in-law, senses that a change is on its way:
Reinhard is critical of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement and its methods.  He says it’s not enough to give land to the Indians, and less meaningful still to let them vote (“Vote for whom?” he asks, when your husband challenges him, “Vote for which of the little white men exploiting them?”).  He tells us it’s brewing, that those of us present should hold onto our hats and our wallets, should be trembling in our boots.  You’ve never heard anyone speak like this before, his words unsettle you. (p.65)
Monika is infected by his beliefs, eventually becoming more heavily involved with the leftist struggle (far more involved than Reinhard himself) than she could ever have thought.
While the second half of Affections is set in a time of turmoil, the text largely avoids the actual fighting and atrocities.  Instead, Hasbún focuses on the spaces between the murders and the thoughts of the people involved.  He uses a variety of narrators and narratorial styles (something translator Sophie Hughes will have been very used to from her work on Laia Jufresa’s similarly structured Umami), with Reinhard’s repetitive monologues (//Yes…) particularly distinct.  The obvious stand-out among the characters is Monika, not only because she appears throughout the other characters’ sections, but also because her strand is written in the second person, distancing the reader from the main focus of the novel.  In a way, the other characters appear to be in orbit around her (even if she’s the one constantly on the move).
Looking back at what I’ve written, I suspect that I haven’t really explained the book as well as I might have, but that’s partly owing to the nature of Hasbún’s novel.  A lot remains unsaid, and it’s up to the reader to decide what to take from the story.  The writing is excellent, calm and measured, yet compelling, whether it concerns descriptions of rainforest adventures, nights of passion or the tense wait for battle.  As we circle around to end the novel with Hans, who has been absent for much of the book, we are forced to reflect on the events of the years separating it from the start.  Affections, then, is a work which can be read in several ways – but it’s certainly one which can be read many times too. -

Hans Ertl, Nazi cinematographer and photographer, made his home in Bolivia where he died in 2000. Piero Pomponi / Getty Images.

Hans Ertl was a German cinematographer who made his name working with Leni Riefenstahl on the propaganda films she made for Hitler in the 1930s. Olympia (1938), for example, their documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, once famous for showcasing then-groundbreaking cinematic technique, is now infamous for its glorification of Aryan athletic supremacy.
Such was Ertl’s reputation with the Nazi elite, when war broke out in 1939 he was conscripted into the military as a war correspondent, famously earning the title of “Rommel’s photographer” for his documentation of the field marshal’s North Africa campaign.
After the war, with the country and the party he’d spent his career lionising now defeated, Ertl was banned from working in Germany. Along with many of his contemporaries, he fled to South America to begin a new life. He and his family – his wife, and their three daughters: Monika, Heidi and Trixi – arrived in La Paz in 1952.
He shot two final documentaries in Bolivia in the 1950s before his career was brought to an abrupt end in 1961 when mid-filming a new project, he lost his footage in an accident.
Retiring to an isolated farm, he stepped back from the limelight only for his eldest daughter Monika to take centre stage instead. In 1969 she joined the guerrillas fighting in Che Guevara’s National Liberation Army of Bolivia, soon becoming the most wanted woman in Latin America after she assassinated Toto Quintanilla, the man supposedly responsible for cutting off Guevara’s hands after his execution. She was hunted down and killed in 1973.
Faced with such riches to mine, a less daring writer would surely produce a doorstop of a family saga. Rodrigo Hasbún, however, boldly strips his narrative right back, and, in a writerly intrepidness that matches the adventurous spirit of both Ertl and Monika, constructs a haunting account of the family’s Bolivian years, the key to which is an elegant sparseness.
Rather than retelling the facts of their extraordinary public history, Hasbún is concerned with an intimate examination of the slow collapse of the family as experienced from within: a sister who became a “mystery”, a father who was always a “phantom”.
The story of which he pieces together through vignette-like chapters: a series of episodic moments spanning a period of more than 20 years and narrated from multiple perspectives.
Slight, mercurial and more than a little strange, Affections is like a rare bird of paradise; the kind of creature one imagines Ertl and his companions encountering during the expedition deep into the Amazon jungle with which Hasbún begins the story.
Filming the first of his two Bolivian-set documentaries, Ertl sets out in search of the lost legendary Inca city of Paitití (the Lost City of Gold); Monika and Heidi accompanying him, along with the man Heidi will eventually marry, and the woman who will become Ertl’s lover.
Wearing strange “green rainforest suits,” they push through the thick fog tracing the footsteps of the Conquistadores of yore: “We looked like lost skydivers. We looked like soldiers searching for a war, interplanetary beings.”
It’s an experience that is formative for each and everyone involved – even little Trixi, who is left at home with her mother – a journey into the interior, both physically and psychologically, that lays the groundwork for so much of what’s to come.
Beautifully translated by Sophie Hughes, Affections is a richly atmospheric and evocative portrait of fractured familial bonds that takes the reader into the darkness where the protagonists dwell.
“It’s not true that our memory is a safe place,” thinks the adult Trixi. “In there, too, things get distorted and lost.
In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most.” - Lucy Scholes

If you thought your teenaged years were a struggle to work out the world, and yourself, consider that of Heidi Ertl. Or either of her sisters – this book serves as a sort of tribute to these three real-life women, and the lives that came out of their very disjointed youth, forced to be rarefied from the norm by their family uprooting. Father Hans was one of Leni Riefenstahl's key cameramen, and a Nazi military photographer, before taking the whole family into post-war exile in Bolivia. Their mother would have followed him to the ends of the earth – as in part would their daughters, the older two of which start the book by joining him on an expedition to discover a lost Incan city. Heidi finds young, instant love on the trek – but sees the dark side of such emotions, too. Older sister Monika, who might well be manic depressive, finds something else, while the baby of the family stays at home with a maudlin mother. So much here could be the hook on which to hang a full novel, but if anything it's the reaction of them all to this unusual formative journey that inspires this book.
And it has to be said that while it's not a full novel – nobody would struggle to read this in two hours – it's just as rich as you'd want. Part of that must come down to the different narrative voices used. We just get used to seeing Heidi's point of view of the expedition, when we jump to her kid sister and her Christmas back at home. The oldest girl joins in too, in an unusual second person voice. A man crops up, with a weird paragraph formatting and with everything starting with a Yes,… as if he's responding to a questioner or rehearsing to himself the giving of a statement. Plain narration from outside the sisterhood and their larger family is thin on the ground.
But nothing reads thinly about this book. Rodrigo Hasbun has been receiving accolades at home in Bolivia and elsewhere, and this proves why. It's taut, it's a little strange – certainly it took me to a much different place than to where I was expecting from the opening chapters – but it says a lot. There's a richness here you would appreciate and, to repeat, expect much more readily from a larger, denser read. If you have an understanding of Latin American politics and history, well – you've got the icing on the cake. I got an eye-opener to a family I'd never heard about, and one which certainly held my interest despite the lack of relevance the Bolivian audience would definitely find. But that's not to say this reads as a faction about these women's lives, however remarkable – the author's note points out this does not intend to be a faithful portrait, rather a novelisation of the events and characters. Those events and characters, and the way the book addresses the theme of the after-effects of displacement, are certainly worth sharing a little time with. - John Lloyd

Interview with Rodrigo Hasbún - The White Review