Earlier this year while I was in Texas, the Bolivian novelist Rodrigo Hasbún put into my hands a copy of his novel Los afectos, translated into English by Sophie Hughes as Affections—the first of his to reach the English language. The book is short and lyric—you can read it in a day—but its narrative and means of storytelling are so rich and fragmented that it soon becomes clear that Affections is one of those brief novels that Latin America specializes in: that is, a work whose short duration and exquisitely smooth surface belies huge depths and a great richness borne of remarkable craft and insight. Think of Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Alejandro Zambra, and Samanta Schweblin.
So to say that Affections is the story of the family of Hans Ertl, a colleague of Leni Riefenstahl who fled Germany after the war in disgrace and ended up in Bolivia in search of ancient pyramids, is to at once tell you what the book is about but also say very little. Using continually changing perspectives and an innovative structure, Rodrigo invents the lives of Ertl’s daughters, one whom leaves a more or less normal existence, and another who fights as a part of Che’s doomed Bolivian revolution.
I corresponded with Rodrigo about the means by which he arrived at Affections’ unusual shape, Latin America’s strange affection for the “short novel” (or novella), the resonances among literature, music, and film, the art of writing as a permanent apprenticeship, and many other things. Throughout our conversation, Rodrigo was a methodical and careful correspondent, and whenever I saw his name in my inbox, I knew I was in for a treat.
— Scott Esposito
SE: Let’s start with Hans Ertl, whose family you follow through Affections. Ertl was a filmmaker and a Nazi who had to leave Germany after the war because he had, among other things, worked with Leni Riefenstahl. He, his wife, and their three daughters ended up in Bolivia, where he made a couple more movies and continued to lead the life of a mountaineer and adventurer. Where did you first hear about Ertl?
RH: Several years ago a friend told me the story of Hans Ertl over beers. Up till then I’d never heard anyone talk about him or his family, and I immediately knew that there was a novel there. It was a strange feeling, unusual, because when you’re a writer people are always telling you stories, but those stories are never any use. My friend, Fadrique Iglesias, was at the time writing a biography of Klaus Barbie, a torturer for the Gestapo who lived in Bolivia for decades under a false identity. For years I’d fantasized about writing a novel about Barbie, and I was asking about him when Fadrique happened to tell me the story of Ertl. When I got home I looked him up on the Internet and found that little had been written about his family, and within a few days I had started researching him and making notes.
SE: What aspects of Ertl and his family drew you in as a novelist?
RH: So many things. His failed attempt to start life over in a place so different from his old one, the conflict within his family over emotions and ideologies . . . But I would say that above all it was an image that completely seduced me: that of Hans Ertl and his two teenage daughters in the Amazon jungle, where they had gone in search of a lost Incan city. More than the adventure of such an enormous project, what I saw in this image was a man in crisis, ambigious in his loyalties and emotionally confused. It seemed like someone out of a movie by [Werner] Herzog, one of those people chased by their demons who doesn’t know how to take “no” for an answer. But more than Hans, the people who truly intrigued me were his daughters and the life that they were forced to live in the shadow of their father. Ultimately, because of this he doesn’t show up a lot in the novel. His daughters’ gaze and voice take over the story (especially those of Monika, the oldest). Their questions are what animate the book, not Hans’.
SE: I feel like this movement from Hans to his daughters is evident in the novel’s very original approach. Given the source material, I could imagine a writer very easily creating a saga of 500 pages about Hans and his family, but Affections is not like this at all. It is lyric, short, and tight, and the great historical narratives that intersect with the Ertls almost seem to be a side-note. A lot of the questions of Hans’ life as a disgraced Nazi who abandoned his country sit implicit, putting pressure on the narrative but never really being defined in and of themselves. Instead, the book’s opening segment is immersed in Hans’ daughter Heidi’s teenage life; her prosaic concerns could almost be those of a girl anywhere that age. But you can feel Hans’ former life pushing in on this seemingly normal familial life, and this legacy becomes more evident as the novel proceeds; that is, as it becomes a story of Monika, who became a revolutionary and fought with the remnants of Che’s routed army, ultimately almost intersecting with Barbie’s life before she died in action. How did you decide that Affections would take this form?
RH: I discovered the novel’s form in the process of writing it. The changes of perspective, the jumps in time, and everything else came out through the writing itself. I like the uncertainty of working without any prior plan, without a road map. In the case of Affections, the only thing I knew from the beginning was what kind of book I wasn’t interested in writing (this 500-page tome that you mentioned, full of intrigues and historical references, perhaps partially set in Nazi Germany), but I still didn’t know what kind of novel I did want to write, or could. The way I figured it our was by trying different ways of bringing it together. Sometimes I think of books as ghostly artifacts, like one possible version out of so many others that the book could have been. If I had to work on the same material now, four years later, I might end up writing a very different novel.
As to Hans, whose past was very different from Klaus Barbie’s, the extent to which he participated in Nazism is unclear (he worked closely with Leni Riefenstahl, the famous propagandist, helping shore up the regime’s image, but he never was a member of the party), and this participation was presumably always was mediated through a camera. In order to keep myself as close as possible to the family’s experiences, I portrayed their silence over Nazism. What people don’t say, of course, also says much about us.
SE: I’ve noticed that many of the Latin American writers I admire, and many of the ones I’ve interviewed, tend to have similar feelings about not wanting to write long books, particularly sagas filled with those sorts of details. Why do you think short, lyric works have flourished on your continent? And what in particular draws you to this sort of novel?
RH: Latin America has a long tradition of producing novellas. Some “blame” this on the more recent generations (the novels of many of the most recognized writers born in the ’70s and ’80s, for instance Alejandro Zambra or Valeria Luiselli, Samanta Schweblin or Yuri Herrera, can invariably be read in a single sitting), but it has long been one of the most common genres in the region, and accounts for some of the most beautiful books. Just think of Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo or Los adioses [Goodbyes] by Juan Carlos Onetti.
If, as they say, the short story is a one night stand and the novel is a long marriage, the novella would be one of those summer loves that leave you with unforgettable memories and an enduring sense of strangeness. In other words, it combines the intensity and tension of a short story with the deep characters of a novel. Could you ask for anything more? But I don’t think it can be explained just in terms of aesthetics or storytelling. Let me risk an alternative hypothesis that syncs up with the other: in contrast to what happens in the United States, literature and the market have rarely joined forces in Latin America. On one hand, this means that few writers have been able to dedicate themselves to writing full-time, and if you’re writing in your free time it’s less demanding to write stories or short novels than epic novels. On the other hand, it’s also true that editors are less subjected to the tyrannies of the market and more open to giving some space to less commercial genres, so writers have approached their work with a total freedom and without expectation of anything in return. I think these two tendencies have reinforced the preference for short fiction over the years. The only exception is the so-called Boom, when certain authors began to receive enormous advances and could dedicate themselves exclusively to writing. I don’t think it’s pure chance that they then proceeded to release one long novel after another. All things considered, I don’t feel like the total novel is particularly sought after in Latin America.
SE: You’re a Bolivian, and you were raised and educated in that country. How is Che and his failed revolution regarded there, both by the public and by the government and its system of education? What are your own feelings about Che?
RH: You know how it is: especially in countries with short memories like Bolivia, each new government makes use of the past according to its ideology. Doesn’t Orwell’s slogan say as much? “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” During the 15 years following Che’s death, the successive military dictatorships did a good job of obscuring him from the public eye, and they also removed the guerrilla movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In my school years these things were barely spoken of, but months before I graduated, at the end of 1997, some groups on the left organized an enormous gathering in Vallegrande y La Higuera to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Che’s death. I was still just a kid at that point, so it was a revelation to assist in the preparations and see the places that the guerrillas had traveled through, hear the testimony of the survivors, and just generally get the other side of the story. I think this was right about when that iconic image of Che was beginning to spread throughout the streets, and I began to see his face more and more on t-shirts and posters and graffiti. However, this popular usage dehistoricized him and eventually reduced him to merchandise. For my own part, this made it impossible to think of Che without thinking of the awkwardness and convictions and problems of the time. From this perspective he seems like a tragic figure who’s equally ruthless and endearing, full of lights and shadows, nuances and contradictions.
SE: What you say about Che fascinates me, if only because it is so similar to my own experience, despite being brought up very far from where you were brought up. I learned virtually nothing about Che in school and as a young man (the one exception being the film The Motorcycle Diaries), and I only really discovered him when I moved to Latin America, where, as you say, he is present in the streets. Suddenly I realized who he was, and I began to learn about him. Since coming to America, what sorts of things have you begun to absorb in this culture, and has it affected your writing at all?
RH: I get the impression that in countries like mine politics is often thought of in grandiose terms. It’s the politics of Che and the guerrillas, of revolutionaries, dictators, and the resistance, of the governments of the left and right that always want to perpetuate their power. Living in the United States has helped me better understand that politics is also a beast that’s always operating on smaller scales—it works on both the level of the community and the personal—with dynamics and tensions that are expressed in culture, race, body, gender, sexuality, and class, all things that I’ve learned to pay closer attention to.
The other result of living here is that I’ve thought a lot about what it’s meant to leave the place where I grew up, and I’ve learned that one of the consequences of immigration is a kind of involuntary splitting that makes me compare everything. On the plus side, this helps you better experience your new home, as well as the place you’ve left behind. On the minus, it leaves you suspended in between, incapable of existing in either place.
To return to your question, I don’t know how it’s impacted my writing, nor how much difference it would have made if I had never left Bolivia. It’s something I wonder about myself.
SE: I happened to come across a quote in which you discuss the rhythms of your language and the way they come from music: “Mucho de lo que sé como escritor lo aprendí antes como músico. Algo que me interesa en todo autor es el ritmo. Yo también lo persigo.” I like this sentiment very much, and I think the rhythms of Affections are very much part of its success. Could you share some of the music you’ve admired and what you’ve learned from it?
RH: Just like young people everywhere, I grew up listening to tons of music from the United States. For all its ups and downs, the music of the ’90s really meant a lot to me, and grunge was a big part of my coming-of-age. For instance, I vividly remember the afternoon when I first heard Pearl Jam. It was the exact moment when I began to distance myself from the tastes of my older brothers, the moment of rebellion in which I sensed that my anger and confusion were a part of something much larger. Then I began to add in a little of everything: from Tool and Rage Against the Machine to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, from Nina Simone and Billie Holiday to the cumbia that was often heard on Bolivian radio, from Charles Mingus and Chet Baker to Soda Stereo and Los Prisioneros, from Nick Drake and David Bowie to Morphine and Radiohead.
It really made me see how much songs can become a part of our lives and move us and comfort us—and take us back in time—and I always aspire to this kind of emotional immediacy when I write. I also try to give the utmost importance to atmosphere, rhythm, tone, and voice. That’s why I sometimes, half-jokingly, say that I’ve learned everything I know about writing from music. But in all seriousness, regardless of how much effort one puts in, literature works at a disadvantage. The ritual aspect of music, the communal energy that it makes possible, the combination of sounds from different instruments, these things can’t be conjured by words.
SE: To return to Affections, I found it intriguing how you follow the presence of cigarettes throughout Trixi’s life. They’re introduced to her in a very tender moment when she is 13 and alone with her mother at home while the rest of the family is out on one of Hans’ expeditions. There’s a sense here of a compact, of mother and daughter making a kind of life apart from the family that has left them behind. Then later on as a young woman Trixi clings to cigarettes for meaning as her life drifts, and then eventually she attempts to renounce them. In my reading, this relationship with cigarettes seemed to be Trixi’s small, domestic version of a certain obsessiveness that Hans and Monika play out in their life’s pursuits: mountaineering and exploring for Hans, revolutionary politics for Monika. Is Trixi perhaps sublimating a certain kind of intense desire here?
RH: What you suggest sounds fascinating to me, and I enjoy watching your intellectual acuity operate, but I don’t have a convincing response for this. I can say that in the novel Trixi’s personality seems to be defined by cigarettes, and smoking is what she knows how to do best. Exaggerating a bit, I might add that for her life is what happens in between one cigarette and another, and this life is made of advances and retreats, of sisters whose example she tries to follow as they mature, of a mother that dies before her time and an absent father, of a borrowed country and a fast-changing era that is in search of understanding. Trixi is a vulnerable observer (as, perhaps, we all would be), an observer that isn’t immune to what the world shows her and that always questions what her real self is made of.
I think that it was while I was writing the Christmas scene in which she smokes with her mother for the first time that I began to feel a distance developing between the real Ertls and those of the novel. I don’t know if Trixi ever smoked anything, but the Trixi of Affections does without a doubt—very much—and from this small difference the fiction began to develop for me.
SE: I agree with what you say about Trixi’s life being one of estrangement and return. I think this gets at the heart of what I find impressive about your characterization of her: as she moves from a naive teen to a middle-aged woman, the evolution of her mind feels very authentic, and for me it’s your navigation of this estrangement and return that makes it so successful. This ebb and flow is constant for Trixi, but you subtly transform it over the years, so that it goes from being the ebb and flow of a person looking to discover life to that of one who has learned very much and is looking back over her days. Did you feel that it was a risk to try and get into the mind of this character at so many different ages, including, of course, ages that you yourself have not yet personally experienced in your own life?
RH: I’m pleased that you noticed the transformation of Trixi and her way of seeing. The literature that most interests me invariably offers an experience of time. I think this is one of the most human experiences, maybe the most human of all, and even though it’s very strongly linked to death, it’s also tied to life since we choose how to live knowing that we won’t be here forever.
I think that in the day-to-day this is all very abstract, except for two facts that force us to confront this reality: the aging of our bodies (which is where we most clearly see the passage of time) and the oscilations of our memory (which maybe is where we second-most see the passage of time). As I advance toward my forties, my body and my memory have become the two coordinates most important for understanding where and what I am, and I think that the same happens to Trixi in the novel. As she ages she inhabits the present less and less, and her body and memory become increasingly relevant.
SE: I should mention some of the stylistic touches that keep this book fresh. it is composed of numerous voices: Reinhard, a man who falls in love with Monika, and whose voice in the novel seems to consist entirely of his responses to questions, as though he is being interrogated by some sort of state counter-terrorism force about Monika. Monika herself is told through the second-person, a curious choice that really works. There is also Trixi’s intimate first-person, and a detached third-person to narrate certain segments of Monika’s life. I’m curious about these choices, which give this short novel a striking degree of fragmentation and seems to make it feel larger while multiplying the interconnections within it.
RH: I don’t remember who said that there are writers who work with a map and writers who work with a compass. I’m of the second group, and moreover my compass doesn’t function very well, so when I write I’m constantly getting lost. It’s a marvelous process in which I discover the road as I walk it. Then, when I reach a stopping point I look back and re-evaluate the decisions I’ve made. This second process is less visceral, and I tend to linger in it for much longer than the writing itself. For instance, I wrote the first version of Affections in three or four months, and then I passed the next two years digging through this material, deciding what to keep and what to throw away, adjusting narrators and perspectives and creating secret connections between the chapters, reassuring myself that this silence established resonances that made the novel richer. But I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in conrol of this process. Happily I am not. Although I like it when it seems otherwise, writers are permanent apprentices. To write one book isn’t to learn how to write the next one.
SE: I like very much what you say about a writers being permanent apprentices. I agree wholeheartedly; I would go so far to say that when a writer feels that there is nothing new to learn while attempting a new project, it is probably a sign that this is a dead end, and a different project should be started immediately. What writers that you admire have impressed you as working in this spirit of this permanent apprenticeship?
RH: Kafka definitely is the best example of the writer as the permanent apprentice, to the degree that he often gives the impression of being unable to finish the texts he begins. His diary is a laboratory where we can see evidence of investigations that, after twenty years of writing, shouldn’t still be going but that he, miraculously, pursues until the very end. His is an almost childish approach to writing, and this I like, because maybe it’s in the beginning of a writer’s life where writing feels most necessary and truthful. With Bolaño I have a similar sense. I see a continual brilliance to his writing: for him literature is also like a fascinating game. This game doesn’t fail to amaze Kafka, but it preoccupies and torments him to not understand how it works. By contrast, it only brings Bolaño happiness. Reading him, one sees how much he enjoyed writing. It’s even possible to hear him dying of laughter between certain lines.
SE: Given your reflections on the writing process of Affections, I’m curious to know what you think of the method of Javier Marías, who has stated many times that he never revises, and that if he makes his protagonist do something on page 2 that then becomes very inconvenient on page 50, he just has to live with it and figure out how to make it work. Or to take another prominent writer, there is César Aira, who also states that he does not revise, and who seems to exult in the absurdity that such a method forces him to integrate into his plots.
RH: Each writer has a distinct manner of working, a rhythm of his own, unique beliefs—all of this ultimately reflects how he thinks of literature and his place in it. It would delight me to have as much confidence and talent as Marías or Aira that I could make my first draft my last. I would save months or years of work, and I would publish much more than I publish now. But as I said earlier, it’s very difficult for me to find what I’m looking for, because, among other things, I almost never know what it is I’m looking for. Sometimes I need to read a text 100 times in order to discover what is lacking or excessive, whatever’s not working. Then I start trying out possible solutions, and even then I often don’t find any and finish by filing it away. In this sense, what also impresses me is the audacity of many writers, including Aira and Marías, to publish everything they write. Maybe the biggest danger of publishing so much, and of not revising (which is ultimately to question oneself), is that all their books end up looking similar.
On the whole I feel more like a filmmakers, filming 80 or 100 hours of material in order to extract only an hour-and-a-half or two.
SE: Let’s close things out by sticking with this idea of applying techniques the world of film directors to one’s own writing. I would first remark that Affections does have a feeling of cinema, in its movement through a succession of short, potent scenes, and in the rhythms that this sort of structure gives rise to. As to your remark about feeling like a director who films 80 or 100 hours of film, only to piece the best shots together into a final product, I feel much the same in my own work, where I’ll write the same sentence, or scene, or paragraph many times over, and then choose the best “take” to place into the final draft. I’ve long been intrigued by how film can create a compelling feeling of reality by stitching together all of these little bits and pieces from hundreds of hours of recording, and I like the idea that this can be applied to literature. And more recently, I have been fascinated to discover that this is how a lot of popular music is made these days, that the vocalist or the musician won’t just sing or play the song whole, but rather the final version of a track will be made up of innumerable little pieces stitched together, the best “takes” from long recording sessions. I suppose that a writer like Aira of Marías is after a very different depiction of reality; it also strikes me as perhaps a generational difference. Aira was born in 1949 and Marías in ’51, whereas you and I are ’81 and ’78, respectively, so perhaps we have come of age where the aesthetic of sampling and remixing is more natural. Are there other ways in which you draw from cinema—either in its plots, or its aesthetic, or its technique, or otherwise—when you create literature?
RH: I’ve never thought about this in terms of generations, but I think what you suggest is inteesting, above all because in this case there’s a change in technology as a medium. Marías writes on an old typewriter, Aira writes by hand: undoubtedly these methods of composition impact their writing in some way. I’m from the first generation to write on a computer, which lets you edit while you write, plus cut and paste and move things around and save distinct versions of the same text that you can always return to later. All this is an integral part of the process, and I don’t know what would happen if I decided to write by hand. Regardless, when I think about how you’re fascainted by the way music is made (and not just popular music: Glenn Gould worked this way, too, frequently intervening in the studio, and I think Miles Davis did as well), I sometimes feel like opera also has this sort of magic: you have to assemble and practice and adjust the same passage a million times in order to create the illusion of naturalness, the illusion that this all happens without any effort. The challenge is to hide what came before, to erase the evidence of the crime.
In the case of film, other things that interest me greatly are its sense of movement and its use of space. Each shot has distinct audio and visual layers (what appears to be and sounds nearby, what appears and sounds behind us), and there’s also a tension between what happens inside of the frame and what’s going on outside of it. From the confluence of these variables emerges a kind of secret choreography, an extraordinary machine that I think a writer can learn a whole lot from.
SE: In a very insightful essay on the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, you talk about how many of his films take place inside of cars, the way that pairing a driver and passenger in an automobile creates a kind of secluded and concentrated space that leads to special kinds of encounters. You put it well when you write, “La esfera privada y la esfera pública se disuelven un poco en los autos.” It makes me think of another film of Kiarostami’s, a very strange one called Shirin, which consists solely of shots of the faces of woman (all Iranian, except Juliette Binoche) as they supposedly watch a film in the theater, a staging of a well-known mythological Persian romance tale of legendary lovers, Khosrow and Shirin. And it seems to me that part of Kiarostami’s interest here is the way that the film theater can create the sort of space that you describe occurring in his automobiles. Is that sensation of intimacy something that you seek to present in your own literature?
RH: Kiarostami is one of my lifelong inspirations, but for one reason or another I’ve never managed to see Shirin. The premise, though, seems fascinating: a film constructed from the expressions of dozens of women reacting to a common story. All at once there’s the personal (the reaction, the face) and the collective (the shared emotions, a certain sense of membership). Perhaps it’s this combination of elements tha produces the most intimacy.
I feel like there are still certain prejudices against intimacy and against art that openly explores the intimate (or at least there are in Latin America). This is a much more complex realm than is generally believed, and we’re never separated from what happens there, or outside of it. To the contrary, to return to that movie theater filled with women—or Kiarostami’s automobiles—the outside and the inside infect one another in that moment, what happens outside affects what happens inside and vice versa. This fabric interests me, and in Affections I explore it. It’s possible to see an entire era reflected in what happens in the life of a family. Telling the story of this family lets us tell the story of a nation.
SE: It always interests me to talk with a writer who really cares very deeply about film, because, although I would argue there are some deep resonances between them, even if cinema and literature ultimately do occupy different places in our world today. I think that the process of looking at each in light of the other helps to clarify whom each serves, and why each exists in our world. So to conclude, I would like to ask you what you feel is the place of literature in today’s world and what you hope to achieve with your own literature.
RH: These are difficult questions, Scott. The second one makes me think of Rodolfo Walsh and his understanding of literature as “an exercise in submerging ourselves in the lives of others,” but at the same time as “a laborious journey through one’s own stupidity.” I’m not sure what I want to achieve, but this seems to me an interesting equation: literature as a place for dismantling your own lies in order to travel through others, to learn how to see.
In response to the first question, beyond saying that each medium has certain distinct limits and possibilities and varying scopes, I think that literature and cinema are doing similar things these days, and they’re both as necessary as ever: they make us remember how important it is to be alive while offering us a break from the chaos of the world, they train us in the art of putting ourselves in another’s shoes, as well as the arts of aging and saying goodbye, they make us feel as though we’re part of something (even those who don’t feel like they’re part of anything), they disturb us and comfort us and broaden our horizons, and, generally speaking, push us to experience life more intensely. Because, ultimately, after holding us captive for a moment, true art always ends up throwing us back toward the world.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation. Rodrigo Hasbún has published two novels and a collection of short stories; he was selected by the 2007 Hay Festival as one of the Bogotá 39, and in 2010 was listed by Granta as one of the twenty best writers in Spanish under the age of 35. Two of his stories have been made into films for which he co-wrote the screenplays. Affections, his second novel, has been translated into ten languages.
interview translated by Scott Esposito and Elizabeth Wadell
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán Having read The Invented Part, it is not surprising that Fresán is often mentioned in the same breath as Bolaño and Cortázar; Bolaño because he is widely considered to be the Chilean's heir, a folly that I will not elaborate on here, and because Fresán was also a close friend...
- The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa Guatemalan author Rodrigo Rey Rosa opens his 1998 novel The African Shore with a Moroccan shepherd boy obliviously meandering by reminders of Tangier’s history. First, he passes by a ruined Spanish boating club and then the large abandoned Perdicaris house—the one-time home of the unofficial head of the international community...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Scott Esposito