Is it ever possible to leave the past behind and restart one’s life? Is there any value to nostalgia? Why do those who are absent sometimes retain the greatest hold on our affections? In this short, fragmentary novel of a family’s displacement and dissolution, Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún explores these questions through a story in which private lives intersect with the convulsions of war, revolution, and political struggle.
Hasbún’s book is a fictional account of the life of Hans Ertl and his family. Ertl was a German cinematographer and mountaineer whose work as a cameraman and photographer made him an important figure in the Nazi propaganda machine. He worked with Leni Riefenstahl in some of her movies, including Olympia, and was well-known for his war photography. After the war ended, however, Ertl was unable to find work because of his reputation as “Hitler’s photographer.” He decided to move and went to La Paz with his family in the 1950s. There, he kept away from politics and dedicated himself to documentaries and photography, later becoming a farmer. He died in 2000 at the age of ninety-two. A Time magazine article from 2008 includes claims by one of his surviving daughters that he was never a Nazi himself, but “did what he could do to survive.”
Hasbún does not portray his fictional Hans as a Nazi, nor does he attempt to redeem (or apologize for) Ertl’s past associations. Instead, the novel employs minimal historical and biographical details in order to imagine how a displaced father’s traits as an obsessive documentarian would ripple and mutate in his children, and to explore the psychological drama underneath the characters’ shifting relationships over time.
Affections is composed of short chapters narrated by different characters. The story takes distinct angles and registers through the voices of each of Hans’s three daughters: Heidi, Monika, and Trixie. Two men from outside the family, both Monika’s lovers, also take part in these narrative variations. The many narrators bring the book a range of emotional weather as they work through the past with shifting tones: reflection, empathy, self-interrogation, and longing.
Hasbún makes frequent use of the language of cinema and photography to show Hans’s impact on those around him. The family is often captured by Hans's cameras, made to participate in staged scenes for his documentary, and Heidi begins to see her family as characters in a dramatic film, while Monika struggles to break away from the family and see herself clearly: “You feel too close to yourself,” she writes in the second person, “and from there everything looks blurred.” The collaborative portrait that emerges of the central character remains somewhat ambiguous, as if he were forever out of reach. Some questions, Hasbún seems to suggest, will always remain unanswered.
The tone is not entirely melancholic, however. The first and longest chapter, narrated by Heidi, launches us on an epic adventure, as Hans decides to film a documentary about the ruins of the lost Inca city of Paititi, said to lie somewhere in the Amazon jungle. Initially, he had counted on involvement from a Brazilian institute and a team of archaeologists, but when they pull out, he decides to pursue the project on his own. He has something of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo: courageous and determined, but also irrational, constantly misled, devoid of support and blind to everything but his desire to fulfill his project.
Heidi tells the story of the ill-fated expedition from a point much later in time, when she is back in Europe and rid of her childhood illusions, but Hasbún succeeds in balancing her bitterness with the breath of youthful life, dramatizing the adventure in a way that is infectious and allows us to recognize Hans’s persuasiveness. Without a team behind him, he accepts help from his two oldest daughters, along with two associates from Germany. As the team’s situation grows more dangerous and uncertain as they descend the Andes into the fog-shrouded rainforest, Heidi’s account takes on a dreamlike quality, rendered beautifully by translator Sophie Hughes: “We looked like lost parachutists. We looked like soldiers searching for a war, or interplanetary beings. Every now and then the fog lifted and we could see the hills rolling out toward the east, covered by a carpet of trees that stretched out endlessly.”
Hans’s search for the lost city is purportedly of “noble” intent, in the sense that he is not out for gold or riches, only to confirm and document the existence of the ruins. Heidi says that she “shivered with excitement at [Hans’s] gallantry” while he haggles with their mule drivers over the terms of the journey. The word also indicates his Quixotic nature as a self-appointed explorer. For all his gallantry, however, Hans seems at times to be oblivious to the world he is exploring. He claims that Machu Picchu sat unknown for hundreds of years until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham, even though it had remained familiar to indigenous people. He is also reckless and destructive when it comes to serving his vision. At one point, he instructs his daughters to douse a valley in combustible oil and set it ablaze, for no other reason than to catch their escape on film. The fire destroys the hired workers’ lodgings and pointlessly kills animals and plants. The Ertls almost lose their own supply tent in the process.
Physical destruction echoes the emotional damage in the family, which Hasbún considers in greater detail. Monika, the oldest daughter, succumbs to a plague of panic attacks following the move to La Paz, a move she heavily protested with the claim that “there’s no such thing as starting over.” When she volunteers to join the expedition, the gesture is ironic and yet fitting. Not only is there no such thing as starting over, there is no giving up. Her father brought her to Bolivia, and she will take the journey as far as possible, even into the jungle to join Che Guevara’s guerrilla fighters.
Monika’s revolutionary consciousness is partly triggered by an affair with her brother-in-law Reinhard, who encourages her to recognize the failures of the country’s 1960s-era junta and invites her to meetings with strikers, but it isn’t long before Monika embraces more radical measures. Reinhard’s account of their past together is filtered by heartache, as he equates the violence she perpetrates with her ruthlessness as a lover: “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.”
In the second part of the book we meet another of her lovers, a guerrilla fighter named Inti who escaped capture by crossing enemy lines yet is haunted by dreams of a barrage of bullets, as well as memories of his fallen brother. As he looks around at the surviving men he led to safety, he observes how “the world had gone on, an overwhelming fact to digest . . . dead men no longer afraid of death.”
These passages on the guerrilla war are brief but dense, and Hasbún manages to trace a looping connection between Hans and Guevara’s failed quests, to the point that Monika is driven to complete an audacious solo mission that will brand her as a terrorist in Bolivia and make her father an outcast all over again.
When the book advances in time to show the family’s dissolution and the aftermath of guerrilla warfare, the youngest daughter Trixie wonders if it could be possible for Monika to start a new life—but this way of thinking is of course antithetical to her sister’s. Trixie is desperate to hold onto some evidence of a worthwhile life, something to redeem the past and affirm the present, but the old photographs in their father’s house are just evidence of destruction and dissolution. As time goes on, her nostalgia grows foggier, she loses touch of reality, and her narration nearly veers across the line between natural human contradiction and sheer incoherence. She responds to news of the guerillas with a willful lack of comprehension, though the reason is that she’s worried about her sister. While the ending brings an abrupt resolution to her account of a near-mental breakdown, her desire to break the family’s destructive cycle without losing her past resonates long after the conclusion of this short but powerful novel.
Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses is the story of the life of a Congolese orphan named Moses. His full name is Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, which means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors” in Lingala. His grandly prophetic name leads him to a destiny that’s far less linear than that of the original Moses, but just as gripping and fantastical.
Moses enters his teenage years in an orphanage as a government with a pan-African socialist message assumes power in the Republic of Congo. He escapes from the orphanage to wander along with a gang of fellow orphans, and then by himself, on the streets of the city of Pointe-Noire. Throughout the novel, Moses drifts from parental figure to parental figure, including Papa Moupelo, the priest who gives him his “kilometrically extended” name; the school nurse, Sabine Niangui; and a Zairean madam in Pointe-Noire nicknamed Maman Fiat 500.
Moses does his best to live up to his name. Throughout the novel, Moses harkens back to the life story of his biblical namesake, who provides him with a shining example of taking a principled stance against power. The story from the book of Exodus in which Moses kills an Egyptian overseer mistreating a slave, coupled with an understanding of the fundamental principles of socialism, give Mabanckou’s Moses a strong sense of justice.
But Moses doesn’t gain an understanding of socialism from the government propaganda he learns at school or the presidential speeches he is forced to memorize. In fact, his sense of justice persists despite rather than because of his education—an education dispensed by “bruisers with zero intelligence” turned party cadres, who pepper their speech with gratuitous uses of the word “dialectically” and say things like “the superstructure must not be allowed to outweigh the infrastructure” without seeming to understand what this vocabulary means. True to form, Mabanckou serves up his social commentary with a side of humor, satirizing pseudo-Marxist posers who substitute conceptual name-dropping for any type of action that might benefit the people.
As for Moses, he’s the exact opposite of the apparatchiks: he internalizes the spirit rather than the letter of the socialist discourse he is taught. From a young age, he is concerned about people who are more vulnerable than he is and tries to defend them from more powerful people. For example, in the orphanage, he takes revenge on the school bullies who terrorize his friend Kokolo by spiking their food with devastating amounts of chili pepper, which earns him the nickname Little Pepper (the title of the original French-language novel is Petit Piment). Aside from the biblical Moses, Little Pepper’s most important role model is Robin Hood, because he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Moses actually does steal things from the market to hand them out to poor people at the mosque or on the street. Our protagonist is like the humble orphan in a fairytale whose good heart guides him to make good decisions and judge people for who they are rather than their position in society.
The society Moses lives in has nothing to do with fairy tales, though. He’s continually mocked for his collectivist spirit. Black Moses paints a picture of a society where socialism is the official ideology even as it’s not actually implemented anywhere. In a country that was actually socialist, there wouldn’t be hundreds of homeless teenagers wandering in the streets of a major city, subsisting on petty theft and scavenging. Driving poor people out of that city wouldn’t be considered a real solution to poverty. The mayor of that city pledging to “clean it up” by expelling undocumented sex workers would be decried as the cruel demagoguery it is. On a smaller level, a young woman’s life wouldn’t be ruined if a rich married man strung her along, made her believe he would support her, and ditched her when she became pregnant (this is what happened to the mother of Moses’ friend Kokolo).
Yes, by my telling Black Moses sounds like it’s all Dickensian tribulations. But in fact, true to Alain Mabanckou’s freewheeling, irreverent style and to real life, this novel is full of hilarious vignettes. To name just a few, there’s a story straight out of Mabanckou’s polyphonic, Rabelaisian Broken Glass, about a mortician who loves corpses a little too much; a lecherous artist named St. Francis of a Titty; and a comical shouting match between the idiotic president and his idiotic henchmen, which could have been a scene from Dr. Strangelove except it’s about whether the president’s favorite sex worker is seeing other clients behind his back.
This unclassifiable novel contains elements of comedy and tragedy, of realism, naturalism, and magical realism, but it is none of these. It most closely resembles the earliest examples of the novelistic form, dating back to the 1600s. One could say the novel was born pre-deconstructed in the sense that the major early works in the form were far more experimental in terms of style and content than most of the novels most of our contemporaries are producing. From Don Quixote to Tristram Shandy to Jacques the Fatalist, these early novels smashed the Aristotelian unities to bits in an effort to portray life as we experience it: not unified in the least but chaotic, completely disjointed, chronologically nonlinear because we reminisce and forget, a melting pot of every single emotion and every kind of experience. In Black Moses, Mabanckou returns to the very roots of the novel to produce a story that’s too thoroughly modern to concern itself with genre or register. Best of all, he does so effortlessly and without taking pains to point out that he’s being experimental (thus avoiding the pitfall of so much experimental literature that tries to knock the reader over the head with its affected weirdness). This is a novel that’s as entertaining as it is engrossing, and reads as though you were experiencing Moses’s life as your own.