Affections: A Novel

Image of Affections: A Novel
Release Date: 
September 11, 2017
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

“Affections is a marvel of spare storytelling, its voice richer for its restraint.”

Deeply influenced by German expressionist films, Orson Welles manipulated shadow not as mere decoration but as an essential narrative tool. In Citizen Kane, his early tour de force, Welles’ use of chiaroscuro illuminated Charles Foster Kane’s tormented soul, a life consigned to a gloomy Xanadu and snuffed out by its own darkness. And in Welles’ lesser-known masterpiece, Touch of Evil, shadows convey the characters’ fight-or-flight instincts, the sinister netherworld of a border town ruled by a corrupt cop.

In his short yet exhilarating novel, Affections, Bolivian writer Rodrigo Hasbún gives us traces of character and motivation that are only visible to the reader by the shadows they cast. Offstage action, canted perspectives—he plays with various techniques in this tragic tale of a German expatriate family in La Paz following World War II. He leaves out more than he puts it, creating a kind of negative space, a Hades of ghosts that flicker in and out.

As the novel opens in the 1950s, one of Leni Riefenstahl’s star cinematographers has moved his cancer-afflicted wife and three teenaged daughters—Monika, Heidi, and Trixi—to La Paz, where they began a life in exile, learning Spanish, seeking out jobs.

A slave to his own whims, the father takes the two older girls—along with some Bolivians and Germans, including his mistress—into the jungle, searching for a lost city called Paitití.

Affections hints at mishaps and betrayals, which shape the rest of the characters’ lives; but it’s to Hasbún’s credit that we never find out what, exactly, goes wrong. The mounting suspense and sense of menace drive the narrative forward: “By eleven a thick fog had descended among us. Papa shouted at the group to concentrate and stick closely behind the person in front. Two muleteers near me began to talk in Aymara . . . We were already wearing our green rain forest suits and the mounting humidity told us we were getting closer with every step. We looked like lost parachutists . . . Somewhere down below was Paitití.”

Despite a year in the wild, they never find the city. In the aftermath, the family flings apart. The father commences a new life with his mistress in a hacienda; the mother dies in prolonged pain; Heidi marries her boyfriend from the expedition and moves back to Munich; Trixi, the youngest daughter, withdraws into a malaise of smoking and solitude; while Monika, the eldest, embarks on a loveless marriage with the scion of a wealthy family, her life drained of meaning. She chastises herself:

“You wander through the city before and after your meetings . . . They’re usually two- to three-hour walks (you’re fascinated by the steep little streets, the colonial passageways frozen in time, the ups and downs of La Paz . . .). But once or twice you’ve walked for even longer, like a rat trapped in a maze, or a madwoman, or, again, like a prisoner, only this time locked in the city, not the house . . . You are the woman who remains a stranger to herself. The ex-depressive, the quasi-Bolivian. A pitiful sum, whichever way you look at it.”

Affections is a marvel of spare storytelling, its voice richer for its restraint. Hasbún is particularly nimble at shifting from character to character, from first-person to second- to third-, all in less than 150 pages.

The second half of the novel feels rushed, though, as he accelerates through ensuing decades. Monika rejects the privilege she married into and embraces the role of a Marxist revolutionary on the run, trained to kill, a blonde, high-cheekboned Che Guevara, a young Faye Dunaway in combat fatigues. Her crimes lead to tragedy—again, offstage—which lessens the impact of this most beguiling character.

Affections resembles Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones, which covers the reverberations of Colombia’s guerilla insurgencies on a group of Europeans, how violence eclipses their lives for decades. But while Pachico is meticulous in her prose, Hasbún is more allusive, drawn to gauzy-lensed parable and gaps in the plot, a different kind of genius evident on each page. Epochs of political strife have birthed a new generation of Latin American author, attempting to reconcile the bloody past with a more prosaic present: Samanta Schweblin and Mariana Enríquez from Argentina; Juan Gabriel Vásquez from Colombia; and now Bolivia’s Rodrigo Hasbún, who joins their talented ranks.