Book review - Oblivion

At the heart of Héctor Abad’s affecting memoir is the profound love and respect he held for his father, a medical doctor, university professor, and human rights activist, dedicated to promoting public health care, fighting inequality and defending free expression. This honourable career was cut short in 1987 with his violent murder by Colombian right-wing paramilitaries. It took twenty years before Abad had the necessary distance to sit down and write Oblivion; “a letter to a shade.”       

His father described himself as “Christian in religion, Marxist in economics and a Liberal in politics.” Abad’s mother came from a deeply religious family; her uncle was the archbishop of Medellín. Abad eloquently describes his childhood as a “struggle between reactionary Catholicism and the principles of the Jacobin Enlightenment (combined with a belief in science-led progress).” This difference of opinion is humorously illustrated in a parental dispute over who Abad most resembled as a baby: “she swore I was virtually identical to John XXIII, then Pope, while he claimed I was the spitting image of Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

Their world was a microcosm of Colombia in the 1970s and 80s: the pull of humanism and divinity; the mystical versus the agnostic; the left versus the right; the idealistic and the corrupt. It was the different outlooks of his parents, Abad suggests, that helped glue the family together. These diverse perspectives are reflected in his writing style which combines anecdotes, lyricism and philosophical reflection with a comprehensive examination of Colombia’s social inequality, violence and corruption.

Abad’s family lived under the shadow of daily horrors in the political sphere and eventually personal tragedy shattered their comfortable existence. Abad writes: “We remember our childhood not as a smooth timeline but a series of shocks. Memory is an opaque, cracked mirror; or, rather, memories are like timeless seashells scattered over a beach of oblivion.”  His sister’s death from cancer, aged sixteen, was one such shock. His family never recovered and his father immersed himself in human rights projects.

During his final year, Abad senior continued to publicly condemn barbarity against students, political opponents and village priests. On the morning of his death he copied out by hand Borges’ sonnet, ‘Epitaph’, which begins: “Already we are the oblivion we shall be…the two dates on the headstone, the beginning and the end.” In his pocket he also had a copy of the latest list of people threatened with death. His name was on that deadly register, condemned as: “Medic to guerrillas, false democrat, dangerous due to popular sympathy in upcoming Medellin mayoral elections. Useful idiot of the Communist Party.” His senseless murder stands as a sad indictment of Colombia’s violent past.

Originally published in The Tablet