Personal Tragedies in Rodrigo Hasbún’s Los afectos

by Kathryn A. Kopple

In 2015, the Bolivian writer Rodrigo Hasbún published Los afectos (Affections), a slim volume loosely based on the Ertl family, a clan foisted on the reader with precious little introduction. “The day papa returned from Nanga Parbat (with some heart-rending images, of a beauty that wasn’t human), he told us while we ate dinner that mountain climbing had become too technical and what mattered was being lost, that he wouldn’t climb anymore.” His wife and daughters take in their papa’s words, careful not to interrupt, as he sermonizes about communing with nature. These speeches – the reader learns – go on uninterrupted for lengthy periods and, finally, culminate in a bruised vision of the world that, in a fine turn of phrase, can only be healed by seeking out those places “where God is untroubled by our ingratitude and sordidness”. A lofty sentiment and one that is in lockstep with the character’s historical counterpart: the Nazi cinematographer and alpinist Hans Ertl – the same man who, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, fully earned his reputation as Hitler’s photographer. Hasbún, however, is not deeply invested in this aspect of Ertl’s story; he is drawn to the private life of the family man. Untethered by all but the most tenuous historical references, Ertl and every character in the book become protagonists in a private tragedy.

Throughout this tragedy, the intimacy of perspectives creates the feel of memoir, albeit one that is subject to fragmentation. Although Hasbún is best known as an acclaimed author, his scholarly work focuses on the interconnectedness between diary, biography and literature. He takes issue with the idea that diaries must be read as at face value, as testimonials, when their very existence opposes worldly interests and demands. The diarist writes for a reader of one, presumably herself without, as Hasbún contends, “deference to the literary institution or publishing world”. Diaries may enter the public domain but their purpose is other. They are reclusive, hermetic. It is as if there is no activity more solitary – or personal – than that of the diarist. Nor is it coincidental that Los afectos is a book imbued with solitude. Hans Ertl’s treks up mountains and through Amazon forest are journeys into the heart of solitude. He is the man who “leaves”. His wife, Aurelia, languishes in the imposed solitude caused by her husband’s absence. Each of his three daughters is a solitary creature unable to sustain familial ties and relationships. Solitude of this sort is profoundly Heideggerian, that is, inescapable.

In fact, the entire novel reads like a Heideggerian fable. The characters are cast into a strange, new world to live out their finitude with precious few inner resources. Severed from their German homeland because of Hans’s Nazi past, their identities are stripped away; they must begin from scratch in Bolivia. In the high-altitude, low-oxygen city of La Paz, time is as precious as air. Hans wastes no time between expeditions. He returns from filming in Nanga Parbat already determined to set off again in search of Paititi, the lost Inca city of gold. His two eldest daughters, Monika and Heidi, are intensely aware that the clock is ticking and they are growing older by the second. The youngest daughter, Trixi, spends a melancholy Christmas alone with her mother, Aurelia, who tells the nearly thirteen-year-old that life is longer than people imagine, and that at times it feels “interminable”. Trixi sees her mother as terribly lonely. She fails to understand how she has too much time on her hands. In her abject pronouncements, Aurelia echoes Heidegger’s assertion that it is through boredom our awareness of time is heightened. Boredom leads to gloominess but forces us to reflect upon the groundlessness of our existence. Aurelia smokes, drinks, and reminisces but, most importantly, she philosophizes. Sadly, it’s all downhill for her from there.

In contrast with Aurelia’s lassitude, the eldest daughter, Monika, suffers fits of anxiety. Heidi, who fears and resents her sister, describes these episodes as grotesque. “It was ugly to see her writhing about, I won’t deny it. It was shocking, horrible even, to the point that, the last time, we had to tie her up.” The episode passes and Heidi suspects that Monika’s outbursts serve an ulterior purpose: they are a means of holding her distracted parents’ attention. Her resentment of her sister intensifies when she learns that their father is taking Monika with him on his next expedition. Heidi demands to go. Her father agrees in a way that unnerves the girl. “As if he had predicted all of it, including the questions I was asking, a strange smile appeared on his face. My chest froze and I looked at my sister and she at me and at that moment neither of us knew what to say.” A limit has been reached. Words fail. There is no turning back for Heidi. Now, like her father, she is the one who leaves. She also falls in love with Rudi, one of Hans’s assistants. Most significantly, she becomes lost, psychically speaking, unable to remember the day or the reason for the journey. This stripping away of perspective, time, and purpose brings her closer to what Heidegger calls authenticity.

Authenticity, for Heidegger, refuses imitation, it can’t be contained in archetypes. Rather, it prefigures socialization as an ideal mode of being. Hans may be the paterfamilias of the Ertl clan but he is, above all things, a man who is true to himself. He becomes disillusioned with mountaineering because alpinists have become mere technicians. Averageness disgusts him. In contrast, he aspires to all things sublime. The rain forest is no less sublime than the glacier. Sublimity involves terror. It is awe-inspiring. Add to that a mythical Inca city of gold – buried in all that forest – and the quest promises certain glory. At one point, he heaps praise on Hiram Bingham, the man credited with discovering Machu Picchu, thus inserting himself in the tradition of great explorers. But then he has already proven his worth by filming the 1936 Olympics and being at Rommel’s side during the war. Hans also possesses a certain erotic magnetism. When Trixi asks her mother if she fell in love with him at first sight, she replies, “The second I saw him…. But I wasn’t the only one. I think everyone on the committee was a little in love with him.” And then, not least, his eye never fails him. Whatever he films turns to magic. Authenticity – the discovery of the ideal self – goes hand in hand with exceptionalism.

For Hans’s daughters, living with such a man is overwhelming. Their feelings for him cause rifts and divisions – an utter lack of peace reigns over the family. It’s apparent that Hans loves Monika the most, ostensibly because she tests him. Of all the ironies to be found in the novel, the fact that Monika will go on to become a left-wing revolutionary is the most poetic. (But then, Heidegger too was a revolutionary. He found academic philosophy guilty of all manner of sins, not the least of them complacency. There is an air of nihilistic joy that runs throughout his writing, a sense that once the old norms have been destroyed, philosophy will arise like a phoenix from the ashes. And no doubt, Heidegger thought of himself as that phoenix. It’s also true that he was a committed Nazi and antisemite.) In Los afectos, it is Monika who forces the issue of Hans’s Nazism. She accuses him of being a “lackey of the powerful, a disgusting fascist”. Her words open a great wound in him. After her assassination by the Bolivian military, the elderly Hans has a grave dug for her, literally forcing him once and for all to stare into the abyss.

When Los afectos first came out, it was marketed as a historical novel. From the disclaimer on the first page of the book to his assertions in numerous interviews, Hasbún is adamant that the book is historical only in the broadest sense of the term: as story. The story involves multiple points of view, lack of chronological cohesion, and a directness of expression that breaks down aesthetic distance. Instead of history, we are presented with instances that turn inward, personal, and reflective. Out of this assemblage of disparate voices, the question that arises is why history at all? Especially since Hasbún claims to use as little biographical detail as possible. The author seems to be pulled in by the unwritten aspects of the story – in what the historical record either suppressed or omitted. Nazism recedes into the background, almost imperceptible, as if opening a window to let in some fresh air.

In the essay “Fascinating Fascism”, Susan Sontag remarks that it may “seem ungrateful or rancorous to refuse to cut loose” the work of Nazi propagandists from their past. She takes issue with the rehabilitation of Leni Riefenstahl despite the cinematographer’s ongoing commitment to fascism. The same could be said of Hans Ertl. He never became disillusioned with Nazi Germany: it was post-war, democratic Germany that failed him. Moreover, during his self-imposed exile in Bolivia, he sought out the friendship of the notorious Klaus Barbie. Barbie is thought to have been involved in Monika’s assassination by Bolivian security forces in 1973. Given his friendship with Barbie – and, as mentioned in the novel, Ertl’s relationships with high-ranking members of the Bolivia military – he may have had more to do with his daughter’s death than the novel suggests. Whatever role he played (active or passive), Ertl never repudiated Nazism or his fascist associations. He would go on to write two memoirs, both of which are imbued with sentimental accounts of mountaineering and exploration. Both memoirs pay homage to the Germany of his youth.

However Hasbún adjusts the lens – the ever-shifting angles – it’s scarcely possible to insulate Los afectos – or any work of art – from its source material. The connection between old-world fascism and new-world exile is not severed but revised. Nazism may find itself reduced to mere figments, but even these have the power to mesmerize. The Argentine writer Manuel Puig, in his masterpiece El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman), explores the Nazi aesthetic, and how it catches us in a web of repulsion and attraction. The goddesses of Nazi cinema are no less beautiful because they are instruments of a brutal regime. They fascinate regardless. They provide an ideal of physical beauty and an antidote to the ugliness of existence. Fascism is predicated on a host of aesthetic values, among them the dictum that, without beauty, life is simply not worth living. Los afectos offers us a taste of such a life in the Ertl family saga. They are doomed and therefore beautiful. To paraphrase Heidegger, beauty is only as true as it is tragic.


Notes

All translations from the novel are mine unless otherwise cited. Regarding Hasbún’s critical investigations, please see Enea Zaramella, “Interview with Rodrigo Hasbún” in The White Review, https://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/interview-rodrigo-hasbun/, accessed 22 August 2021. A thorough discussion of the fascist aesthetic of Hans Ertl’s memoirs can be found in Caroline Schaumann’s “Memories of Cold in the Heat of the Tropics: Hans Ertl’s ‘Meine Wilden Dreißiger Jahre’” in Colloquia Germanica, vol. 43, no. 1/2, 2010, pp. 97–112, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23981639, accessed 22 August 2021. Susan Sontag’s essay “Fascinating Fascism” may be found at UC Santa Barbara, https://marcuse.faculty.history.ucsb.edu/classes/33d/33dTexts/SontagFascinFascism75.htm , accessed 22 August 2021. Los afectos has been translated into English under the title Affections by Sophie Hughes.


Kathryn A. Kopple holds a doctorate in Latin American literature (NYU). Her focus is the surrealist poetry of the Rio de la Plata. She has also published original poetry and prose in multiple venues, including The Threepenny Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. She has published two novels – Little Velásquez and The Leaving Year – set in Spain. Kathryn also hosts the literary blog The Leaving Year.