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Interview with Rodrigo Hasbún

Rodrigo Hasbún (born Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1981) 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, will be translated into ten languages.

 

Affections is inspired by the eccentric Ertl family, the head of which, Hans, was Rommel’s personal photographer and cameraman in Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda movies. After Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, the family migrates to Bolivia, a move that will lead them to grow apart. In Hasbún’s polyphonic narrative, whose short chapters are narrated by strikingly different voices, he reveals the feelings and perspectives of the three estranged Ertl sisters – Heidi, Trixi and Monika – and the people most affected by them. The second half of the novel recounts the fallout of Bolivia’s guerrilla war through the eldest daughter Monika’s Marxist radicalisation and her participation in the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional de Bolivia. In real life, Monika would go down in history as ‘Che’s avenger’. Affections also imagines the circumstances in which this young woman killed Bolivia’s ambassador in Germany: the man who ordered the amputation of Che Guevara’s hands as proof of his death.

 

When, as his English translator, I queried Hasbún about some of the biographical details in Affections, the author, in the laconic but charged phrasing that characterises his fiction, seemed to suggest that the only true-to-life elements that matter to him as its writer are those that the characters themselves believe to be true. In the novel, which asserts its strict basis in fiction in the front matter, details as incidental as made-up place names are plucked directly from the real Hans Ertl’s diary, uncorrected. Why? It seems that for Hasbún the fictions we create around ourselves, especially those fossilised in our private writings, or even born out of that intimate writing process, represent the other side of truth, or to borrow J. M. Coetzee’s lovely temporally fluid noun, truth-directedness. A desire to represent truth-directedness is evident in all Hasbún’s work; in his characters, self is a site of flux. Monika, his devastating guerrilla heroine, confronts herself in the mirror: ‘That’s you now, you think, that woman on the other side is you.’

 

The hazy line between fact and fiction comes up again and again in Hasbún’s writing, as in the story ‘Syracuse’, where a creative writing teacher sets his students an assignment to write an authentic diary, but one in which any number of the events or details they recount is fabricated. This seems a fitting metaphor for the growing body of work by an author who has admitted to holding onto well over a decade’s worth of personal diaries; these, for Hasbún, are ‘a place of literary exploration’.

 

This interview came about thanks, in part, to another prolific diarist: the late, much missed Argentinian writer and literary critic Ricardo Piglia (1941-2017), whose final literature courses Enea Zaramella took as part of his doctorate at Princeton University, and who Rodrigo has mentioned in several of our correspondences. Piglia’s recently published diaries have helped revive an interest in life writing in Latin America, and seemingly reinforced Hasbún’s interest in the genre. The two men got in touch, and a conversation developed over email.

S.H.

Q

The White Review

— A Bolivian of Palestinian descent living in the United States. Displacement, exile, geo-politics, cosmopolitanism. It may seem obvious, but it’s also true that having left a place, it can be difficult to go back. What is your experience as a foreigner and/or citizen of the world? What is your notion of home?

 

A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— I like the displaced position of the foreigner, whose mere presence rejigs the map. His or her affects and loyalties and sense of belonging don’t respond or correlate to a single setting – she or he is both there and not there, in more than one place at a time – and I find this liminal quality pleasing, fruitful even, although it’s also true that it leaves you somewhat in the air, unsure of where or what home is.

 

I’ve been lucky enough to live in several different cities (in Cochabamba and Barcelona, Ithaca and Santiago, Toronto and Houston), but the last thing I consider myself is a citizen of the world. Not only do I dislike the expression – who can aspire to be one, and who cannot? How is that possibility defined? By whom? – but being a citizen of the world couldn’t be further from my own circumstances as someone who travels with a Bolivian passport and an Arab face. And yet, this is really a gripe about the expression, not my personal situation, for which I am incredibly grateful, knowing full well how regressive and how brutal things are for most migrants. Despite the endless form-filling and paper-shuffling and the occasional grilling at border control, I’m one of those that have it easy, who don’t find themselves forced to get on a life raft or cross the desert on foot to arrive (if they’re lucky) at their destination.

Q

The White Review

— Congratulations are in order, Doctor Hasbún. It’s sometimes said that academic writing can encumber creativity or fiction writing. And yet, both vocations involve writing professionally, albeit in different ways. What are your relationships with academic and fiction writing like? How do you ensure your two worlds don’t interfere with one another?

 

A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— At first I was worried that doing the PhD would come at the expense of being a writer, that I’d become too conscious of what I was doing. But it’s a baseless dilemma; a bit like the soccer player who spends his free time reading books on the history of the game. I don’t believe this makes him any better or worse later when he’s on the pitch with the ball at his feet. By this I mean that, beyond the seminars and often fascinating conversations that academia generates, in my case writing continues to exist or come about in that strange zone where you don’t understand what’s at play, nor why you make the decisions you make, and where the most critical details are out of your hands. They’re somewhat instinctive.

 

But I do think I’ve transformed as a reader. In fact, that’s what the doctorate has meant above all: learning to read more carefully, and from different, sometimes opposing perspectives. Every writer is his or her own first reader, and this way of reading improves one’s writing, makes it more multifaceted and rigorous. On the other hand, there is the risk of finding yourself writing to fulfil certain critical or theoretical expectations, sort of preempting how this thing you’ve written will be read. Either way, the fact that in the last few years dozens of Latin American writers have opted to do PhDs may well leave a mark – both good and bad – on the literature that is produced.

 

Q

The White Review

— Could you tell me a little about the main themes of your research and doctoral thesis?

 

A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— In my thesis I recover the personal diary, a genre that has generally been overlooked in Latin America. Through readings of three diaries I really admire (La tentación del fracaso by Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Ese hombre y otros papeles personales by Rodolfo Walsh and Veneno de escorpión azul by Gonzalo Millán) I question some of the prejudices implicit in their reception: namely that the expectation is for diaries to be testimonial as opposed to literary, and that this kind of writing is considered minor.

 

Ribeyro wrote his diary over roughly forty years, Walsh over fifteen, and Millán devoted the last months of his life almost exclusively to writing his. This in itself is telling. It’s a kind of writing inextricably linked to the experience of time, a kind of writing forged against the quotidian and a life perpetually slipping away from us. I’m both intrigued and amazed by the urgency created by this; this attempt to fasten or fix things that are movable or fluid; to preserve what has already been lost, or eventually will be. I’m also seduced by the fact that it’s a genre that shows no deference to the literary institution or publishing world. The diarist writes with her back turned on both, and happily so.

 

Q

The White Review

— I can’t help but think of Ricardo Piglia, the Argentinian writer and literary critic (who I was lucky enough to have as a teacher), whose writing and thinking somehow relates to what you’ve just described. Firstly, in terms of reading: it may well be a shame that we can no longer read without a pencil in hand (correct me if this doesn’t apply to you), but, in some way, Piglia advises us to take the act of reading seriously; or rather, he constantly questions what it means to ‘know how to read’. Secondly, regarding intimate writing, Piglia’s own diaries – Diarios de Emilio Renzihave been published to great acclaim over the last years by Anagrama. What did you make of them?

 

A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— What a treat to have had Piglia as a teacher. In addition to being an extraordinary writer, he was one of the most singular critics in the Spanish-speaking world. I began reading him when I was eighteen, and like so many others, I’ve been really intrigued about his diary since then. So you can imagine my delight when the first part was published in 2015. Beyond how much it moved me, I’m interested in the complex artifact that Piglia created with this first volume (and indeed the second, which has subsequently been published). It’s a diary that constantly asks itself what a diary is or might be, and it brims with life and poignant prose. If La tentación del fracaso marks the beginning of a period of maturity for the diary as a genre in Latin America, Diarios de Emilio Renzi, twenty-five years later, marks the end of that period in some way. These two diaries share many features: they’re extensive, incredibly self-reflective, and both went through drastic edits decades later at the hands of their writers. There’s almost a declaration of principles implicit in this act; an explicit desire to embed the diary in the literary realm.

 

Q

The White Review

— Autobiographies, diaries, correspondence: these are all genres that oblige the writer to select particular events, construct character (in this case, one’s own), and imagine a possible reader. If we can agree that all these elements combine to form one genre – life-writing – we might say a very subtle game is at play between reality and fiction (which may well be a single place). I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this aporia (if we can call it that), and also how the life-writing genre relates to history, or with your concept of history. Is it, for example, a genre that lends itself as a documental or historical source?

 

A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— I’m less interested in the documental potential of this kind of writing than in its literary aspect. In the auto/bio/graphical field, too much importance has been placed on the second element (the bios, or life), and the complex alchemy of the three together is almost never dealt with. Looking out, at others, is not the same as looking in at yourself, and if this gaze is a written one, the result is even more porous, because both the tactics and resistances involved when a person tries to portray themselves come into play: the things that they can’t see, or don’t want to see, or don’t know how to see in themselves and everything around them; their conscious or unconscious willingness to show themselves in a certain light. That’s why I don’t read diaries or autobiographies or correspondences looking for truths. If these texts are a kind of stage where we witness the construction of a self-image, if we see in them someone trying on different masks or disguises, it’s not so much the masks or disguises that interest me as the very act of that person trying them on.

 

Q

The White Review

— And your recent novel Affections points to this, is that right?

 

A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— Yes, it’s true, in Affections there are characters trying on different masks and disguises throughout the novel. They’re searching for themselves the whole time, and the changes they go through are quite drastic. I suppose the same thing can be said of all of us. We take a while to become ourselves, to accept who we are or can be.

Q

The White Review

— How did you go about developing your cast of characters, in Affections? I call them ‘yours’, but they are also ‘ours’ in the sense that they already belong to the history books. I imagine you had to rely on some sort of preliminary research (documentary, photographic, life-writing) to begin to visualise them before they could begin to have a voice. Perhaps the right question is: what was the process – the ‘historical process’ or the literary one – to turn something that belongs to all of us into something of your own?

 

A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— I looked at and read as much as I could for six or seven months, not entirely sure what I’d do with my notes, or where the novel would go. There isn’t all that much material available on the Ertl family, and I think that this was crucial, because it let me write with considerably more freedom than I’d initially thought possible. It’s true that I had some solid facts to hold onto, and that I knew I should get them into the story, but other than that it was the same old ambiguity that every new text brings. I was interested in exploring the mundane side of the family, the day-to-day life on which I’d found almost nothing in my research. So I had to make it all up, from Trixi’s first cigarette with her mother, to Monika’s wedding night. For the kind of writer I am, these small details are just as relevant as the great deeds and adventures the Ertls undertook. That’s why I focused just as much on the things that would definitely be in a biography, as on the things that wouldn’t; on both the visible details and the hidden ones; on both their exploits and escapades and their inner journeys. Needless to say, all of their portraits are imbued with fictional ambiguities. I’m not trying to convince anyone that their lives were actually like this. Ideally, I’m trying to convince readers that this is an interesting way to write about them.

Q

The White Review

— Speaking of masks and mimicry, how did you envision or conceive of gender or the issue of the female voice in this novel? Is this a sensibility that comes from life-writing?

 

A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— Traditionally there was a kind of division of space according to gender, wasn’t there? Penelope stays at home waiting for Odysseus to return from gallivanting around the world. In Affections, Aurelia, the mother, more or less obeys these norms. But the daughters rebel, and time and again they cross the domestic threshold and break from supposedly ‘female’ roles. They come and go as they please, and they also pay little attention to their father’s way of seeing things, to the tales that he tells. Following this logic, I wrote the novel from the girls’ perspectives, rather than from Hans’s.

 

And then, as you say, there is also the question of intimacy, which I’m really interested in. But I don’t think about this intimacy in terms of gender so much as a proximity to what’s being narrated. I want to be close to my characters, to understand their dilemmas and frustrations, their vulnerabilities. I want to know what makes them tick.

 

Q

The White Review

— More congratulations are in order for your recent and forthcoming translations of Los afectos.  How have you found the translation process? Do you tend to get very involved? What kinds of ‘liberties’ – if any – do you allow those who translate your words for other cultural or linguistic contexts?

 

A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— Translators are the invisible heroes and heroines of literature, the ones who truly keep it alive. I think we could stop writing (there is already so much written, and we know so little of it), as long as we carried on translating. As for the process itself, in my experience, the writer becomes a co-pilot: you relinquish the steering wheel of that car (that has given you so much joy and grief) and become the co-pilot at a new driver’s side. The one choosing the words now, the one battling it out with language, sentence by sentence, is the translator, and the resulting book is as much theirs as yours. I’m very obsessive, a real stickler for detail, and can spend days adding and deleting a single word, so it’s taken me some time to learn to accept my role as a collaborator. As for the other translations you mention, I only speak Spanish and English, so Affections is the only translation that I’ve actually read.

 

Q

The White Review

— Finally, what are you working on at the moment? Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
A

Rodrigo Hasbún

— This last year was given up almost entirely to finishing the thesis. The moment I was free of it, some months ago, I immediately started working on a new project. I’m still not entirely sure what it is, but I’m very much in it, watching how things slowly take shape, how they find their right place. Whenever I’m writing something, I feel everything starts sending me signals: an anecdote on the radio, something I spot in the street, a joke my mum tells me over the phone. All of a sudden there’s nothing that doesn’t affect what I’m writing in some way. It’s a really wonderful state to be in. I just hope it lasts long enough for me to come out of it with a new book.
 

 

*

 

This interview was selected for inclusion in the 2017 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director for the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

researches and writes about sound, soundscapes and Latin American literature as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Warwick and Teaching Fellow at Leicester University. He is working on a book entitled The Analogic Era: Listening Practices and Cultural Production in Latin America (1890-1963).

Rodrigo Hasbún (Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1981) 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 is his second novel and will be translated into ten languages.

Sophie Hughes is the English translator of Rodrigo Hasbún’s novel Affections (Pushkin Press, June 2016; Simon & Schuster, September 2017).

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