This is tremendous material for a novel, dramatic and full of moral complexity. No wonder the young Bolivian novelist Rodrigo Hasbún was attracted to it. What is remarkable, however, is what he has made of it. The easy option, which someone less talented and original might have taken, would have been to write a political thriller. All the material is here in waiting for such a book that, well done, would have sold in airports worldwide. Nazi background, exotic locations, Che Guevara, police brutality, a beautiful and idealistic assassin; altogether a rich stew. Maybe somebody will still write that novel, heavily weighted with research, and it will be a big success.
By Rodrigo Hasbún
Pushkin Press, 142pp, £9.99
Hasbún’s success is of a different order. He has written a spare narrative, little more than a novella in length, in short, impressionistic chapters, spoken through the voices of Monika (addressing herself as “you”), the other daughters, the brother-in-law who loved her too late and lost her, and an unidentified narrative voice. Everything in the drama is here counterpointed with the ordinariness of life in a land where you don’t feel at home and yet seek to belong.
The title indicates where his interest lies. Affections is the theme, affections not strong enough to hold a family together. The father is presented as a “phantom”; you’re always aware of him and he is always slipping out of sight. Monika is a mystery. What turns a beautiful, intelligent girl, so close to her father, into an activist, terrorist and assassin? Events and the reflections they give rise to are presented to us, now in memory, now in a shifting present. But things get “distorted and lost in memory.” “It’s not true,” Trixi thinks, “that memory is a safe place.” “We end up,” she says, ”turning away from the people we love the most.” She does so painfully and reluctantly. The middle sister, Heidi, does so determinedly. But actions have consequences for other people. You get blamed for what you aren’t yourself responsible for. Trixi comes to the sad conclusion that “knowing how to be alone was my one great achievement in life”. Or perhaps that’s not so sad, but a sort of success. Hasbún is a writer who invites you to look at the other side of the coin.
This is a finely atmospheric book, admirably translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes. It’s a work of sympathetic imagination, written with cool economy, elegance and understanding. It’s a reconstruction of real lives, real historical events, but Hasbún’s achievement is to make it perfectly fictional, which is to say truer than fact. I read it straight through first, with no idea of its historical truth, no knowledge of Hans Ertl beyond the name, no memory of the woman who in Hamburg assassinated the Bolivian diplomat who had been the policeman who ordered the hands of the dead Che Guevara be cut off. Learning of this made the second reading interesting in a different way, but didn’t enrich it. The truth of fiction of this quality is that it reminds you how much of life that really matters goes on in the mind and heart. n