Affections: A Novel

  • By Rodrigo Hasbún; translated by Sophie Hughes
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 144 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jennifer Showell-Hartogs
  • January 17, 2018

A German family’s life unravels following a post-WWII move to Bolivia

Affections: A Novel

Following the end of World War II, a number of families left Europe and relocated to the Americas. Some were searching for new beginnings; others were fleeing the past. In Affections (Los Afectos), Rodrigo Hasbún provides a fictionalized account of the real-life Ertl family, who survived the war unscathed but ultimately found despair in their new lives in Bolivia.

The book initially revolves around family patriarch Hans. Once a cinematographer for the Nazi party, Hans, in his self-imposed exile, has refashioned himself as an explorer. He is the type of man who is larger than life, who takes up all the space in the room. He is the type of man who films a wildfire rather than running from it, who believes that the legendary Incan city of Paititi has been waiting for him to discover it.

But rather than finding one of Bolivia’s lost cities, he loses something important: his own family. The expedition to Paititi is where the Ertls begin to unravel, leading each of them down their own sad path.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that it is not Hans, but the eldest of the three Ertl daughters, Monika, who is the tie that binds and then breaks the family. While each family member has their own small tragedy, Monika is the doomed heroine.

One of Monika’s lovers — her brother-in-law — describes her as “the misunderstood child, the chaotic, rebellious teenager, the woman who went on to lose all perspective and no longer knew when to stop and ended up hurting herself and others…the woman who went on to cause so much hurt.” Her younger sister Heidi describes “shrinking even smaller in her shadow, feeling uglier and stupider and less funny and less interesting.”

But Monika is not entirely unsympathetic. She grows from a bored socialite in a loveless marriage, to philanthropist, and eventually goes on to become a member of the Bolivian ELN (the guerilla movement led by Che Guevara). It becomes clear that she believes in the revolution and has an earnest desire to change Bolivia.

Still, there is a bleakness to Monika’s life as a revolutionary. Hasbún emphasizes how she forces herself to become “the body they used,” and struggles against the idea that “you could abandon the fight, ignore what matters most, go back to your life from before.” Hasbún also details the horrors of the revolution, the torture and deaths and ultimate failure of those who believed in the resistance.

Monika’s story is told through the memories of her sisters and lovers. At one point, she is described as “the woman whose memory had tormented me for years, the woman who had left a permanent stain inside me.” Those close to Monika face their own battles — illness, infidelity, loneliness, loss — but it is Monika’s life and actions that keep haunting them. In Affections, there are no happy endings.

Though Affections is beautifully written and eloquently translated, it ends abruptly. And while the historical figure of Monika Ertl might be well known in Hasbún’s native Bolivia, my guess is many American readers have never heard of her. After all, most know little more about Che Guevara than what his image looks like embossed upon a novelty T-shirt; the vast majority are probably unfamiliar with the German-born woman who was said to have avenged his death.

As someone who has worked on issues related to Latin America and the Caribbean for the last 15 years, I suspect I know more about the region’s history than the average American, but I was also unfamiliar with Monika and had trouble following some of the book’s developments without further research. Therefore, the English edition of the book could have benefited from a brief foreword (or afterword) on the Ertls.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I enjoy delving into the “true” story after reading the fictional account. I read Affections twice: once, without any background on the Ertl family, and once after perusing several articles in Spanish and German (little information on Monika is readily available in English), and still had a number of unanswered questions.

What happened to Monika? What happened to the sisters who lived in her shadow? What caused Monika to change from a bored housewife into a guerilla and assassin? Perhaps little is known about this part of her life or the lives of her sisters, but I would have liked to have seen Hasbún take the liberty of fleshing out their stories.  

The sign of a great book is the sadness you feel when it comes to an end. While I was left wanting to know more about the fate of the Ertl family, my own sadness came from having read so few pages of Hasbún’s prose. I look forward to reading his other works.

Jennifer Showell-Hartogs is an avid reader, world traveler, and a federal employee. She resides in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband, daughters, and dog.

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