Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Affections” by Rodrigo Hasbún

At your own wedding, at least for a couple of seconds, you feel like the loneliest woman in the world.

You marry a man with the same name as your father and this doesn’t amuse you. Your father isn’t there to shake his hand or to hug you, to offer you up with these gestures to the man who will take his place. At your own wedding, at least for a couple of seconds, you feel like the loneliest woman in the world. All women must feel this at their weddings, you think, in an effort to console or merely entertain yourself, or perhaps to do both things at once. Trixi is the only one there with you. That afternoon your family has reduced itself to her alone, and there’s something heartbreaking about this basic realization, but also something incomprehensibly liberating. Until recently, you thought that you would never do it, that marriage wasn’t for you. Months after meeting him, perhaps believing in the promise of a different life, one unremarkable Saturday you get married.

* * *

On the wedding night he can’t get an erection. You see him naked for the first time: his sinuous body, his long, slim dick, the scar from his peritonitis operation, and feel not a hint of excitement or conviction. Is this a typical wedding night? He touches you all over with his soft, rich kid’s hands. He licks your nipples and neck, kisses you clumsily either in desperation or impatience, perhaps fearing you or himself, but he can’t get an erection, not even when you stroke his dick. You wonder whether he might still be a virgin, whether perhaps he’s only ever been with whores, whether it isn’t women he’s into at all, whether he, like you, doesn’t understand why he got married. You wonder what your parents’ wedding night must have been like—it’s always been beyond you to imagine them young. You think about how your children won’t be able to imagine you. “You’re distracted,” your husband says. He’s a silent man, he knows how to look at himself from a distance. It’s the thing you most admire in him, perhaps the only thing you admire. Despite what you always believed, it’s something you have forgotten how to do. You feel too close to yourself, and from there everything looks blurred. “No,” you tell him, “I’m not.”

* * *

Trixi helps you move your clothes and belongings and to arrange them in the space your husband has made for you. Your husband: strange to say and strange to think it, but that is what you call him in your head, because he shares his first name with your father, and that is stranger still. Your sister only has two more years of school to go. She is no longer a little girl and has turned into a nervous creature, beset by tics. It occurs to you that she would be very easy to sum up: she’s an oddball. Is this her way of escaping the things that upset her? Her way of defending herself from what she doesn’t understand or might hurt her? And is entering into marriage with a rich kid with soft hands your way? Would you also fit into a single phrase: the one who got married to escape? Escape from what? Hadn’t you had relatively happy lives, at least up until a year ago when your mother’s health really began to deteriorate? Is it from that irrevocable deterioration and outcome that you’re trying to escape through marriage? Or from the distance that’s grown between you and your father? And why won’t you call a truce now that you’re settling your things into a new room, supposedly at the start of something, the tentative start of a different life? You tell Trixi about your wedding night. She just laughs. “I don’t know what to say,” she says, and you realize she is more naive than you thought. It does you good talking to her. Her presence does you good. You ask if she’s seeing anyone (she shakes her head), if she has any idea what she’ll do after school (“I’ve still got two years to go!” she laughs), if she has heard anything from Heidi or Papa (she shakes her head). Hours later you hug goodbye at the gate. “Poor thing, how will you ever get used to such luxury?” she teases. Walking the thirty meters back to the front door takes you don’t know how long. As you walk, you imagine the house as a prison.

Despite having done everything in your power to avoid it, you will live for a time with your parents-in-law. His father is a cordial man, his mother offhand. She takes every opportunity to show you she disapproves of her son’s choice, that she hoped for someone different for him, someone more refined and submissive, less ungrateful. You’ve already riffled through their bedroom, the storeroom, living room and kitchen, but nowhere did you find anything remarkable. The house and the lives of those who inhabit it lack any mystery at all. You, on the other hand, hold on to just a few mementos from your past life: the expedition diaries, some old letters, no more than ten photos, and that’s it. You avoid going through them. The last thing you want is to get stuck on places that no longer exist, and the photos and diaries and letters are themselves reminders that they don’t. Better to hide them, perhaps you should even get rid of them. That would be the most logical and appropriate thing to do, the thing that would help release you from it all. You don’t do it, however, because you still can’t bring yourself to. In the evenings, after interminable meals with his parents, you tell your husband that the situation makes you uncomfortable and that you should start looking for a house together at once. “What situation?” he asks as if he hasn’t noticed, searching out your body under the sheets, fondling your nipples, your neck and hands, arousing neither you nor himself, and promptly giving up to think about something else—his whores, his homosexuality, his work. “This situation,” you say. “We didn’t get married to go on being children.”

Because it behooves you living in such a poor country, because you can’t stand being in the house with his parents, because some days are too far from what you imagined for your life, you decide to set up a shelter for the needy with Lilota. You’ve known her since your first day at school in La Paz (when you couldn’t speak more than twenty words of Spanish it was she who kept your head above water), and you’ve been friends ever since, for five years now, although at times you think you don’t know the first thing about each other. Lilota is still unmarried and gets fatter by the day, neither of which things seems to bother her. She’s excited at the prospect of starting up a project like this together. Your mother-in-law and her friends are experts in all things charitable and give you advice. How is it that these miserable old women go to such efforts to help other people? you ask yourself as you listen to them. What moves them to such shows of solidarity if in their day-to-day existence the only thing that seems to concern them is their own comfort? Is it, in fact, nothing but show? In the following weeks, you meet with businessmen and traders, bankers and lawyers, all German or the children of Germans, and you pull together eighteen thousand dollars, including the five thousand your husband throws in. You’re surprised by your own powers of persuasion, and delight in taking charge thanks to your determination, two months later the shelter is up and running. Was this what becoming an adult was? Taking decisions and responsibility for the things you do or stop doing? Was being an adult assuming that there is no longer a family for you to worry about, that what matters lies ahead of you not behind? At twenty-one, can you call yourself an adult? At twenty-one, can you feel that living, when all’s said and done, means belonging to yourself, and that everything that came before was a kind of dream? Why try to forget it if it was a reasonably happy dream?

You meander through the city before and after your meetings with Lilota and the engineer who is helping to renovate some of the rooms in the old mansion. They’re usually two-to-three-hour walks (you’re fascinated by the steep little streets, the colonial passageways frozen in time, the ups and downs of La Paz: they make your heart pound, reminding you that it’s there). But once or twice you’ve walked for even longer, like a rat trapped in a maze, or a madwoman, or, again, like a prisoner, only this time locked in the city, not the house. You tell yourself that it’s in your blood, this trait of not being able to stay still, and find yourself wondering what else you carry in there. Another thing that’s started to happen: increasingly you feel that your life can fit into a single sentence, or at least a few. You are the beautiful girl who entered into the bonds of marriage with a rich kid who hardly knows her. You are the housewife without a house, the unfeeling wife, the one who devotes herself to helping others with a friend from school to escape the guilt and the boredom, and to forget about her husband’s frequent trips away (does he go directly to the mines, or does he have a secret life, a life that might explain his incompetence and apathy?). You are the fine young thing the businessmen try to seduce, the self-assured sibling who sees one of her sisters every once in a while and has lost all contact with the other, the one she never really got along with. You are the motherless daughter who never stops thinking about her father, half of the time hating him profoundly, and the other half admiring and loving him unconditionally. You are the woman who speaks to the people who turn up at the shelter, who is interested in what they have to say, who is weighed down by their stories, even though they tend to be quiet types, men and women who vanish as silently as they appear. You are the woman who remains a stranger to herself. The ex-depressive, the quasi-Bolivian. A pitiful sum, whichever way you look at it.

Something finally happens, at one of the German Club Sunday luncheons, to break the tedium: Reinhard, your husband’s long-lost brother, turns up. He has an air of the family about him, but his features are more delicate and there’s something almost childlike in his gestures that makes him even more attractive. At first, everyone is cordial with him, acting as if they saw him every week. Your husband introduces you. “My wife,” you hear him say, and you hate the way those words reduce you. You hold out your hand and tell him your name. It’s an awkward situation, above all because he wasn’t there at the wedding, and you don’t know if that’s because he wasn’t invited or because he couldn’t be bothered. Your husband never talks about him. “Another time,” he replied on the one occasion you asked why you hadn’t met him. You didn’t push him for more answers—something that irritated you when he did it. Over lunch the conversation becomes heated the minute they begin to talk politics. Reinhard is critical of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement and its methods. He says it’s not enough to give land to the Indians, and less meaningful still to let them vote (“Vote for whom?” he asks, when your husband challenges him, “Vote for which of the little white men exploiting them?”). He tells us it’s brewing, that those of us present should hold on to our hats and our wallets, should be trembling in our boots. You’ve never heard anyone speak like this before, his words unsettle you. You feel dizzy suddenly and at the table they take it as a sign that at last you’re pregnant. You know you can’t be, but don’t contradict them. “I’d like to go home,” is all you say. In the car your husband doesn’t stop moaning. “Pretty easy, isn’t it, to be a communist when your family’s rolling in money,” he says. “Not too hard in those circumstances. I mean, in those circumstances, who wouldn’t?” He doesn’t once ask how you are.

Three days later, tall and slim, energetic, handsome, your brother-in-law turns up at the old mansion. The shelter had come up in the argument at the German Club, his mother insisting that this was the way to do something: by doing it, not just talking about the need to do it. “There are people who actually do things for others,” his mother had said, using you as one example, herself as another. Alongside his studies, Reinhard works part time in a hospital a few blocks away from the shelter and he wants you to know that you can count on him for anything, now or in the future. There’s nothing defiant in his attitude, just a willingness to help. More than once he says you should tell his brother and parents if it makes you feel more comfortable. You ask him if he’d like to take a look around the facilities and he accepts with an interest you’ve never felt from your husband. As you tell him about the project, you realize you’re proud of what you’ve achieved up until now, excited by all that’s left to be done. Reinhard listens attentively, occasionally asking questions. He asks the people at the shelter things too, and even examines one of them, telling him to come and find him in the hospital where he could do a proper consultation. How is it possible that he’s your husband’s brother? you ask yourself. How is it possible you don’t recognize either of them in the other? Half an hour later he says goodbye, offering you his hand, not the kiss you would have expected, the kiss you were waiting for, the kiss everyone gives each other in this country.

Shortly after, you receive a letter from your father in West Berlin. He is still upset by the fact that you got married without his consent. “People don’t marry so young these days,” he writes in a messy, angry scrawl. “Monika, where did the adventuress go?” he asks (and how it cuts to see him call you by your name). Where did you hide the person who made him so proud? Where did you leave the woman who could have conquered the world, who was destined for great things? What did you do with the most gifted of his daughters? “I expected more from you,” he signs off and you read the sentence several times, convincing yourself that it really is there on the page. You respond with a few lines explaining that phantom fathers don’t get a say in the fates of their children, and that this is what he had always been, that if he didn’t know the first thing about anything, better to say nothing at all. It’s just gone ten-twenty and your husband is asleep at your side. In the morning he’ll leave again for the mines. You’ve been living together for half a year and are still strangers, and neither of you seems able to fix that. The promise of a different life continues to be nothing but a promise. Is it your father’s words that have brought all this on? Minutes later, you tear up both of your letters and throw them in the toilet. Back in bed, as tends to happen, you end up thinking about the expedition. You think about your mother too, about how cruel he was to her, the rumours about him and Burgl, his and Burgl’s betrayal, and all of this brings you back around to the side of hate. Were they already lovers when you met her? Looking back, were there signs that gave their affair away? You go over what memories you still hold but don’t come to any conclusions. Yet it’s the very possibility of your ignorance, the loathsome credulity that prevented you from seeing beyond what you had in front of you that infuriates you more than anything that might have been going on. You could reread the diaries, look at the photos more closely. It was a decisive period, your time in the rainforest. You didn’t find anything, never got to Paitití, but at the same time you found too much, every one of you. Without even going very far your father found Burgl and Heidi her Rudi. And you, what did you find? Hours later, with that question still roving in circles above your head—“And you? And you? And you?”—your husband stirs at your side. You close your eyes and lie still, pretending to sleep. He takes a shower, gets dressed and leaves.

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes

Click here for more information about the book.

Rodrigo Hasbun is a Bolivian novelist of Palestinian descent born in 1981. He is the author of two novels and a collection of short stories. His work recently appeared in the Latin American issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Daniel Galera. Affections is his second novel and will be published in 10 languages.

Sophie Hughes is a literary translator and editor living in Mexico City. Her translations have appeared in Asymptote, PEN Atlas, and the White Review. Apart from Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections, she has translated Iván Repila’s novel The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse and Laia Jufresa’s Umami.


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