What we're reading: September 2016

The first work by feted Latin American writer Rodrigo Hasbún to be translated into English, is a strange tale of family and guerilla war.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 31 Aug 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 15:24 BST
Bolivian revolutionaries running through La Paz.

Bolivian revolutionaries running through La Paz.

Photograph by Getty Images

The long-held gripe about (and often from) Latin American writers is that they are haunted by the magic realist ghosts of their literary forefathers; heavyweights of the genre such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. But a new era of realist writers is upon us — or at least it would be if their books were translated into English. Among these, Rodrigo Hasbún's work has been noted in literary lists by Granta, the Hay Festival and by barometer-of-cool novelist, Jonathan Safran Foer, yet has only this year made it into English.

This is in the shape of his novel, Affections, a tale of a German family exiled in Bolivia after the Second World War. Opening with a pretty rollicking account of an Amazonian expedition led by patriarch Hans, a former leading light of the German film scene, the story quickly fragments. Accompanied by the favoured two of his three daughters, Hans sets off to find and document the mythical lost Inca city of Paitití. Suffice to say they don't find it. His close family unit starts to unravel, sending each of them off on solitary life paths, each chapter told from their different perspectives.

This gritty tale — loosely tied together by the Bolivian guerrilla war — may have little in common with traditional Latin American writing but like a good Márquez novel, there's a cast of many characters. Its narrative voice-throwing can, at times, make the story a little murky but at just 130-odd pages, this tale is short if not sweet, its intense atmosphere driving things fatefully forward.

The bleakest of the narrative voices shines a path: that of Hans's eldest daughter Monika, whose mission to become a revolutionary fighter for Che Guevara leaves her damaged, paranoid and on the run. Dodging the FBI, mercenaries and more, she never manages to return to those she loves. A coming-of-age story with a hand grenade at its heart.

Three books to read if you're going to… Brazil

Maktub, Paulo Coelho
Brazil's best-known writer is beloved of backpackers, but you don't have to succumb to the populist charms of The Alchemist to sample his spiritual work. This less obvious choice is a collection of stories first written for Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo.

Dona Flôr and her Two Husbands, Jorge Amada
If Coelho is Brazil's best-known writer, then Amado is its best loved. This tale of a woman who lives in bigamy with the ghost of her dead husband, is a poetic joy, while its setting of Bahia is as colourful as the characters.

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Alex Bellos
As the Olympics wraps up, explore the country's real sporting passion, with this seminal book by a nimble writer who deftly extends a football metaphor to explain life, love and national identity in Brazil.

Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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