“Leave, that’s what Papa knew how to do best.”
Rodrigo Hasbún’s novella Affections concerns the real-life Hans Ertl and his family of three daughters. Ertl was a cinematographer who worked for Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose most notorious work is Triumph of the Will. While the author chose the word Affections for the title of his book, the two main people in the story, Hans and his daughter Monika, are driven by strong, overriding passions, and while the novel is based on real events, the plot illustrates how the sins of the father are delivered upon the heads of his children.
Affections follows the relocation of Hans Ertl, his wife Aurelia and their three daughters in La Paz, Bolivia. It’s 1955, and Hans Ertl, a restless egomanic, photographer/explorer comes and goes into the lives of these women, his neglected chain-smoking wife and the three girls: Monika, Heidi and Trixi who are all quite different from one another. When the book begins, Hans returns only to plan his next departure:
“Man’s communion with nature is what really matters,” he went on, his beard longer than ever and as dark as his faintly deranged eyes. “The chance to reach places God himself has forsaken is what matters. No, not forsaken,” he corrected himself at the start of one of his interminable monologues, the ones he always gave when he got back, before the silence grew again, and with it the desire to set off on a new adventure.
Heidi is the first narrator, and she sees how, when their father speaks, Monika and Trixi “hung on his every word, transfixed, Mama too, naturally. We were his clan, the women who waited for him.”
And as is usual for women who wait for men … they are inevitably disappointed, but that’s still off in the future. Ertl arrives home only to announce his next trip “in search of Paititi” an Inca city “buried deep in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.” This time he takes Monika, who suffers from panic attacks, and Heidi along for the ride. One of Ertl’s grand schemes is to set the rainforest on fire with the oil they carried with them while he films the carnage:
Very quickly the flames began to give off a dark smoke, and you could hear the animals’ cries. A flock of parrots took flight and several vultures appeared. They circled us from above and dived down into the fire, reemerging with animals clutched in their talons. Chaos reigned.
The story moves ahead in time through multiple narrators (the sisters, Monika’s lover and Monika’s brother-in-law) and while Hans drops off the page after he abandons his family, the story is then picked up by narrators. The episodic narration shows the disintegration of the Ertl family as they disperse and their connections become tenous. Monika becomes the trophy wife in a loveless marriage; it’s an ill-fitting role which serves to deepen her unhappiness and estrangement from her own life.
Monika eventually becomes a guerrilla, and … the rest is history.
At one point, Monika tells herself that “phantom fathers don’t get a say in the fates of their children,” and while there’s no argument there, it can be argued that his abandonment led to other, significant events. For Monika to take such steps, to embark on such a path, she must have been influenced by her father’s connections. I’m thinking of the documentary Hitler’s Children and its argument that the activities of the parents burdened their children–sometimes so much so that they took drastic action.
Affections is episodic in nature, fragmented; reading the novel can be compared to flipping through a photograph album. I never quite got a handle on the Ertl daughters–except to say they were troubled in various ways, haunted by displacement and their father’s legacy. They seemed to be lost souls without an anchor.
If you’ve never seen the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, then do yourself a favour and watch it. This deconstruction style film is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen
Translated by Sophie Hughes