Is it ever possible to leave the past behind and restart one’s life?
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.