“Affections” by Rodrigo Hasbún [Why This Book Should Win]

Mark Haber of the BTBA jury and Brazos Bookstore has today’s fiction entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Bolivia, Simon & Schuster)

There is a lot to be said for subtlety, the quiet ability to tackle the heavy issues—family, history, politics—with a restraint that conveys deep emotion without being heavy handed. Affections, Rodrigo Hasbún’s first novel to be translated into English is a breathtaking example of this.

Affections, translated by Sophie Hughes, begins with the Ertl family, newly arrived in Bolivia from Germany after World War II. The father, Hans, an ex-cameraman for the Third Reich, is fixated on finding Bolivia’s lost city of Paitití. I suspected, of course, that the novel would follow the patriarch as he went on a quixotic journey into the jungle, a little madness and malaria, perhaps a lost treasure. However Hasbún is not that type of writer and Affections is not that type of book. Instead, a series of short vignettes, narrated mostly by Hans’ daughters, comprises most of the novel. Before you know it a decade has passed, the daughters are young women and Monika, the eldest, has become a Marxist guerrilla.

In many ways Affections is a book about what doesn’t happen, or what happens between the pages, hidden among lost chapters that the reader is asked to fill in. A quiet book that takes so many unexpected turns, so many amazing shifts it begs to be read more than once, not just for the wonderful language (and Hughes’s skillful translation) but to see if you have perhaps missed something.

I found this book so deft and cryptic, so unexpected and light. Affections is an exercise in restraint (the book and the translation). It deals with family and revolution without once hitting a cliché. In fact, this book is a book that refuses any simple answers. This seems a year of loud and maximalist books, which is great, but this quiet gem should be read and revisited and cherished for the story as well as the execution.

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