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.