Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
(New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2017)
Politics, or perhaps I should say differing ideologies, divide families. I know this well since it has been years since I have spoken to my cousin and her family. If you ask them why we are not speaking, their answer will invariably tell a different story than mine. I tried once to reach out, to step beyond the wounds of my past, but their memories of the event were colored by time, or maybe perception. No one ever wants to be the bad guy. We all want to play on the side of righteousness and find ourselves on the correct side of history. Regardless of the reason, or who was at fault, the rift has never been mended, and lately, with the flames of political discontent raging in America, I wonder if distance is for the best. Our views on most issues have become more polarized, and it’s not likely we’d find an amicable way to agree to disagree. Families are funny that way. Branches sprung from the same trunk can turn out almost nothing alike. But unlike trees, people aren’t rooted to one spot, and so life’s circumstances undoubtedly affect the men and women they become.
Affectations, by Rodrigo Hasbún, splendidly explores the changing dynamics of one particular family in Bolivia during the time of Che Guevara. The family, native to Munich, settles in La Paz shortly after World War II, hoping to start a new life. The brilliance of this novel is rooted in its narrative, which is told from multiple perspectives, including the three sisters (Monika, Heidi and Trixie) and Monika’s ex-lover, Reinhard. Though many voices are heard, by the end of the third chapter it is apparent that the novel will revolve around Monika. What we learn about everyone else is almost always in relation to her.
Monika is restless and discontent, and according to Heidi, she is prone to panic attacks and fits of hysteria. She is the type of person who can’t be ignored. Passionate and driven, she knows how to make things happen, although the things that happen aren’t necessarily good. Reinhard, reminiscing about her, declares, “Yep, 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.” What she did and why becomes clear as the narrative unfolds.
Trixie, who at one point felt a close kinship with her sister, is most sympathetic towards her. Like Reinhard, she identifies Monika as the source of incredible pain. But she also wonders how things might have unfolded if circumstances had been different. After all, it is after a personal tragedy that Monika commits herself to the National Liberation Army, which Guevara founded. To escape the discontent of her personal life, she becomes embroiled in the revolutionary doctrine and makes herself invaluable to the Army, choosing what’s best for the rebels over everything else. In the end, Trixie – who despite everything still cares about Monika – refuses to move until she finds her and convinces her to start over. However, when she can’t locate her, she mournfully concedes, “It’s not true that our memory is a safe place. In there too, things get distorted and lost. In there too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most.”
Monika’s political leanings also alienate her father, Hans, with whom she was once quite close. Successful in his new life, Hans refuses take part in his daughter’s militant plans, nor does he approve of her support for such extreme and revolutionary ideologies. Despite his insistence on not getting involved, his life is turned upside down when his oldest daughter goes too far, stepping beyond the bounds of what he, and the government, believe is appropriate. He suffers greatly, first economically and then emotionally. In the end, his desire to save face outweighs his desire to outwardly concern himself with his daughter’s whereabouts. According to Trixi,
He said he’d experienced something similar after the war, that they’d already made him feel like an outcast once, that back then they’d closed one door after another to him, but this time he wouldn’t move an inch.
Unlike Monika, Trixie never felt compelled to follow politics. It didn’t concern her and so she didn’t get involved. Yet, her love for Monika, her desire to know where her sister has disappeared to and what has become of her, motivates her to obsessively read newspapers and listen to the radio. She explains, “I had never been interested in politics, and there I was learning all sorts of things that deep down I still didn’t care about. I cared about my sister.” Monika’s actions and her political involvement shatter relationships, and those most hurt are the ones who loved her best.
Monika is an unforgettable and vivid character who lives on in memory long after completing the book. Her energy and vivacity are captivating, making the novel an alluring and gratifying read. Rodrigo Hasbún is a remarkable and sensitive storyteller and in Affections he has crafted a haunting yet enchanting tale.
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in Brush Talks, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!