Buy Oblivion by Hector Abad Faciolince
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I first heard of ‘El olvido que seremos’ (The Forgotten We’ll Be) from a paisa professional working in Bogota. He told me it’s his favorite Colombian novel and better than anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I put it on my to-read list, but could never find it in the used bookstores. This year they translated it to English under the title, ‘Oblivion’.
The NY Times called the novel “a searing memoir written with love and blood: both family blood, the kind that’s thicker than water, and the spilled blood of barbarism and murder.” And “while ‘Oblivion’ is suffused with politics, it is primarily, and most powerfully, a highly personal coming-of-age story that’s also a sharp sociopolitical portrait of its place and time … Abad gives us a glimpse of the mute panic and shattering of self-respect that comes from living under a daily reign of state terror.”
According to the Washington Post, author Hector Abad Faciolince “said he has always been frustrated by the attention journalists, scriptwriters and novelists in Colombia have given to ‘evil figures.’ He was referring to men like the flamboyant cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and the paramilitary commander Carlos Castaño, whose anti-guerrilla forces worked closely with military units to assassinate leftists.”
So Abad wrote the memoir of a prominent Colombian who denounced violence, who defied those powerful forces in his country. That Colombian was his father, Hector Abad Gomez, a professor of medicine at the University of Antioquia and liberal idea leader in Medellin.
According to the Guardian review, “Dr Héctor Abad, a professor of public health, spoils his children shamelessly, peppering them with loud kisses and being as deliberately protective and affectionate as his own father was dry and hard. In a world of machismo and suffocating religion, Abad’s father makes tolerance and reason the keystones of his son’s upbringing. As a boy, young Héctor suffers not from mamitis – an intense longing for his mother – but from its paternal equivalent, papitis.”
While the book is primarily a portrait of Colombia’s political violence, Abad’s greater literary achievement is the most honest and affectionate ode to a father I’ve ever read.
The book also gives us a detailed look at traditional paisa culture. His family:
The block we lived on was colonized by the Abad family. Our family lived on the top corner of Calle 34A and 79th; Uncle Bernardo’s house was right next door, then Uncle Antonio’s, and on the next corner, at Carrera 78, were our paternal grandparents, Antonio and Eva, who lived with their widowed daughter Aunt Inés, and another unmarried daughter, Aunt Merce. There were assorted other more distant relatives who periodically came to stay: cousin Martín Alonso, a marijuana-smoking, hippy artist from Pereira, who later wrote a couple of readable novels; Uncle Darío, after his wife left him; two cousins called Lyda and Raúl, before they got married; our cousins Bernardo, Olga Cecilia and Alonso, who were orphans; and others like them.
I don’t recall my uncles or grandfather ever kissing their sons – if they did, it was only very occasionally. It was simply not done in Antioquia, with its austere mountain landscape devoid of all softness. My grandfather had raised my father with a whip and a firm hand, with no outward signs of affection, and this was how my uncles treated my male cousins (they were a little less rough with their daughters). My father never forgot the time grandfather had given him ten lashes with the leather reins of the horse that had just thrown him – ‘Let’s see if you can learn to ride like a man!’ – or the times he sent him out to the fields in the middle of the night to bring in the livestock, for no other reason than to make him get over his fear of the dark and ‘toughen him up’. There were no cuddles or caresses between them, not a shred of sympathy expressed. If my male relatives ever displayed any paternal affection, it was on the last day of the year, after the New Year’s pig had been roasted and eaten, and many shots of aguardiente had softened their hearts. For the most part they addressed each other formally, with a ceremonial distance: expressions of affection between men were considered sentimental or effeminate, and only backslapping or punches were allowed.
Two of Abad’s cousins married. This is common in Colombia, especially among paisas. Where gringos see incest, Colombians see nothing wrong. In fact, the paisa who told me about this novel told me his first kiss was his cousin.
This isn’t only a Colombian phenomenon. It happens in much of Latin America. My wife pointed it out in one of my friends – both of his surnames are the same (for example, Juan Garcia Garcia). Now, Garcia is a common Spanish last name so it’s quite possible his parents aren’t first cousins. But in the author’s case, his cousins’ children could be named Juan Abad Abad or Juan Faciolince Faciolince. If you see a name like that, you can be fairly confident his parents are first cousins.
Abad also talks about his father kissing him in greeting, which is at odds with the tough paisa culture. Here lies a paradox. The Antioquia region is the Texas of Colombia, and the paisas are the cowboys, the mountain men. But it’s also the most traditional Spanish culture in Colombia. And in traditional Spanish culture, male relatives kiss in greeting just as they do with women.
Arequipa has the most traditional Spanish culture in Peru. I play basketball with a Jesuit high school alumni club and my teammates kiss each other on the cheek in greeting. I’ll never forget the first time I noticed it, when Rodrigo was arriving. He was going through the motions, greeting all the teammates with a kiss. Then he got to me and his eyes changed. He knew the cold gringo didn’t want a kiss. More than a few times I’ve caught those looks on their faces when they’re going through the greetings, switching to a simple handshake for me. My father-in-law is even more traditional with his son – they greet with a kiss on the mouth.
Sponsor: luxury apartments in Medellin.
Here’s more on Medellin’s paisa culture:
In my city there is a terrible saying: ‘A man only has one mother, but his father could be any old son of a bitch.’
On paisa machismo:
There was Martina’s daughter Marielena, too, who was mentally retarded and had a harelip, and had had three babies by three different men, because macho men don’t care whether they sleep with a genius or an imbecile, they always want to stick it somewhere, any hot, fragrant hole will do.
Despite a tough, macho exterior in paisa culture, there are paradoxes everywhere you look. I thought Every paisa I met in Bogota was gay. They put so much care into their look, their hair, their clothes, and then their friendliness. Granted, I never met any paisa cowboys. But here’s another example from the book. On a family trip to Cartagena, all the women went by car while father and son flew in a plane:
[B]ack then it seemed the most natural thing in the world, since at my house everyone knew that women were the brave and practical ones, capable of anything, who faced up to life with determination and happiness, while men were spoiled, incompetent and not equipped for real life and everyday inconveniences, but only good for pontificating on truth and justice.
When the young Abad starting asking questions about what he was learning in church, his father told him to go to Mass so his mother wouldn’t worry, “but that it’s all a lie.”
For me it was a relief to stop believing in spirits, lost souls and phantoms, not to be afraid of the Devil or fear God, and instead to focus my worries on protecting myself from thieves and germs, which one could at least confront with a stick or an injection, rather than the wispy defense of prayer.
Oblivion is, without a doubt, the most anti-Catholic novel by a Latin American author I’ve ever read. I must use the by-a-Latino qualifier because gringos have gone much further, but the book leaves no question as to where Abad stands:
I believe [our priest] took a vicarious and unmentionable delight in these mornings and afternoons spent listening to us, as in a long session of oral pornography, we confessed one after another the details of our irrepressible erotic longings. Father Mario always wanted details, more details: with whom, how many times, with which hand, at what time, where … We sensed that these sins, although he condemned them, attracted him in a sick, persistent way, and so the only thing revealed by his relentless interrogations was his own eagerness.
In the traditional Spanish ways of mid-20th century Medellin, prayers were recited in Latin:
…, and more epithets, more titles and entreaties, in an insistent rhythm that seemed somehow to calm all the women present, especially the maids who could at last take a rest from work, be still for a while and sink into their own dream worlds as they repeated this completely meaningless phrase, ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis, this incessant repetition that, depending on the day, made me feel amused, anxious, sleepy or lazy, never spiritually elevated, and almost always unavoidably and utterly bored.
Abad seems to blame the Church for the grave social problems that befell Medellin:
My father, in whose own life the Church played only a marginal role, detested this brand of backwards Spanish Catholicism, with its persecution of independent-minded priests and all those who sought a more modern, open Catholicism. Among his acquaintances there had always been good, compassionate priests – though the Church saw them as bad – especially in the poor neighborhoods where we went on weekends. Father Gabriel Díaz was often cited by father as a paragon of a kind soul, a truly saintly person. Yet the bishops wouldn’t allow him to work in peace, forever transferring him from one place to another as soon as his parishioners started to love and follow him too much. Anyone who encouraged the poor to get involved in politics or gain consciousness of their situation was considered a dangerous activist, putting the unshakable order of the Church and society at risk.
When, a few years later, the neighborhoods of Medellin became a hotbed of killings and a breeding ground for thugs and hit men, the Church had already lost contact with these areas, just as the State had. Both institutions had thought it best to leave them alone, and, left to their fate, they became infested with savage hordes of murderers, who sprang up like weeds.
Abad’s father’s differences with the church were political. During the Cold War, the Church often sided with Conservative governments to avoid the atheist socialist movements. Or they sided with Conservative governments to maintain influence. Or maybe they genuinely agreed on political issues, but the Church usually aligned with the Conservatives. Abad’s father, a doctor, fit into Medellin’s politics via public health:
According to my father, operating rooms, surgery, the most sophisticated diagnostic techniques (to which only a few people had access), specialists of all kinds, and even antibiotics themselves – wonderful as they were – saved fewer lives than clean water. He put forward the basic idea – basic yet also revolutionary, being of benefit to the masses rather than to a small minority – that water is the most important thing, and that resources shouldn’t be spent on other things until everyone had access to drinkable water. ‘Epidemiology has saved more lives than all therapies put together,’ he wrote in his thesis. Many doctors detested him for putting clean water before their grand projects for private clinics, laboratories, new diagnostic methods and specializations. It was a deep hatred, aggravated by the government’s perpetual wavering about how to distribute its scant resources: if my father’s aqueducts were built, they wouldn’t be able to buy their sophisticated pieces of apparatus or build their hospitals.
It wasn’t just a few doctors who hated my father; his work was generally frowned upon in the city. His colleagues would gripe that ‘you don’t need a medical degree to do what this “doctor” does’; for them medicine was treating ill people in their private practices. To the richest it seemed that, with his mania for equality and his social conscience, my father was organizing the poor to start a revolution.
The fact that Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries with drinkable water may be attributed to the efforts of Hector Abad Gomez. It was the focus of all his energies outside teaching. His work for public health made him a liberal leader in Medellin:
Where he was most radical was in his search for a more just society, less despicable than classist, discriminatory Colombian society. He didn’t preach violent revolution, but he did advocate a radical change in the State’s priorities, warning that if all citizens were not at least given equal opportunities, as well as the minimal conditions for decent survival, as soon as possible, we would be bound to suffer for a long time to come from violence, delinquency, the emergence of armed gangs and furious guerrilla groups.
Being a liberal in Colombia was dangerous business back then. Some countries have religious or sectarian strife, some have racial tensions. But Colombia has long been known for being deadly when it comes to politics. La Violencia was a genocidal civil war between Conservatives and Liberals, and it really hasn’t ended. Instead of the liberals being brought into the political system, they became guerrilla armies aiming to overthrow the government. Where the government couldn’t protect the people from these guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries sprang up to fill the void. The violence descended into a chaotic war between guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug gangs, and the military.
In the 1980s, violence skyrocketed as paramilitaries targeted suspected guerrillas and socialists:
A constant and avid reader of statistics …, my father watched the progress of this new epidemic in terror, an epidemic that in the year of his death registered homicide figures higher than those of a country at war, and which in the first few years of the 1990s led to Colombia attaining the sad distinction of being placed first in the list of the world’s most violent countries. It was no longer the diseases he had fought so hard against (typhoid, enteritis, malaria, tuberculosis, polio, yellow fever) that caused most deaths in the country. The cities and the countryside of Colombia were being sprayed with more and more blood from the worst of the diseases suffered by man: violence. And like doctors in earlier times, who contracted bubonic plague, or cholera, in their desperate attempts to combat them, so Héctor Abad Gómez fell too, victim of the worst epidemic, of the most destructive plague a nation can suffer: armed conflict between different political groups, uncontrolled delinquency, terrorist explosions, the settling of scores between mafiosos and drug-traffickers.
Being a doctor concerned more with social welfare than private practice, Abad’s father shifted his focus from clean water to the chaos in Colombia:
He fought against the new plague of violence using the only weapon he had left: freedom of thought and of expression: words, peaceful demonstrations, publicly denouncing those who violated rights of all kinds. He sent endless, mostly unanswered, letters to officials (the President, the attorney general, ministers, generals, squadron leaders), citing full names and concrete cases. He published articles in which he named torturers and murderers. He condemned every massacre, every kidnapping, every ‘disappearance’, every act of torture. He went on silent protest marches with young people and teaching colleagues from the university who believed in the same cause (Carlos Gaviria, Leonardo Betancur, Mauricio García, Luis Fernando Vélez, Jesús María Valle), and participated in forums, conferences and demonstrations all over the country. And his office was filled with hundreds of reports from desperate people who could turn to no one, neither to the courts nor to State officials, but for whom he was the only hope. It is enough to look at these documents, some of which are still in my mother’s house, to be at once disgusted and overwhelmed by pain: photos of tortured and murdered people, desperate letters from parents and siblings of kidnapped or missing relatives; from parish priests in distant villages to whom no one listened and who turned to him with their testimonies – and weeks later the news of the murder of those same priests. There are letters written by him in which the death squads are named, with the killers’ first and last names, but to which he received in reply only the disdain and indifference of the government, the incomprehension of journalists, and the unjust accusations of some of his newspaper colleagues that he was allied with subversive forces.
Abad calls the accusations unjust, but he also discloses facts that lead me to believe how, in a time of war, his father would’ve easily been grouped with the guerrillas:
On occasion, during the last years of his life, he was manipulated by the extreme left in Colombia. Although he detested the armed struggle, he did try to understand and almost excuse (though never explicitly) the insurgents and the guerrillas; and since he agreed with some of their ideological positions (agrarian and urban reform, redistribution of wealth, hatred of monopolies, loathing of an oligarchic and corrupt class that had brought the most shameful poverty and inequality to the country), he sometimes looked the other way when it was the guerrillas committing atrocities: attacks on barracks, absurd explosions … As is sometimes the case with human rights activists, he paid more attention to atrocities committed by the government than to those committed by the armed enemies of the government.
And so the attention turned to academia:
In the year of his death this dirty war was having a devastating effect on public universities. Some agents of the State, along with their accomplices, the paramilitaries, had decided that this was where the seed and the ideological lifeblood of subversion lay, and began to carry out vicious attacks and murders. In the months before my father’s murder, in his beloved University of Antioquia alone, they had killed seven students and three professors. One might think that faced with these figures, citizens would be alarmed or shaken. But life seemed to go on as normal, and only this ‘madman’, this friendly, bald, sixty-five year old professor, with a booming voice and a devastating youthful passion, shouted out the truth and condemned barbarity. ‘They are exterminating intelligence, they’re disappearing the students with the most inquiring minds, they’re killing political opponents, they’re murdering the priests who are most committed to their villages and parishes, they’re beheading popular leaders in neighborhoods and villages. The State sees communists and dangerous opponents in any thinking person.’
In that year, Abad’s father decided to run for mayor of Medellin as the Liberal party candidate. He was shot to death by sicarios on motorcycles on August 25, 1987. After the murder:
This investigation, read now, almost twenty years later, seems more like a textbook cover-up and conspiracy for impunity than a serious investigation. A month after the case was opened the judge in charge was sent on vacation, and officials from Bogota were put in charge of keeping a close watch on the investigation, that is, to prevent any serious investigating.
In Abad’s father’s pocket was an editorial – his last – titled ‘Where does the violence come from?’:
In Medellin there is so much poverty that you can hire a hit man to kill anyone for two thousand pesos. We are living in a time of violence and this violence is born out of inequality. We could have much less violence if the world’s riches, including science, technology and morality – these great human creations – were spread more evenly … If the great powers would only allow a united Latin America to look for its own solutions, we’d be much better off. Yes, this is dreaming, but dreaming is a necessary and nonviolent precursor to any great triumph. The triumph of bringing about a sane humanity, that one day, over the next ten thousand years, our descendants will see, if we don’t self-destruct now or in the near future.
Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is great for a fast grasp of Colombian history: the settlement of difficult land, the impossible geography resulting in isolation from the rest of the world, the backwardness, the incest, the endless civil war, the banana gringos, the cultural flavors. But that novel was published in 1967, so it misses an important part of Colombian history from the next few decades: narcoterrorism and guerrilla-paramilitary violence. Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden captures the narcoterrorism, and Oblivion captures the terror of guerrilla-paramilitary violence.
Oblivion’s historical relevance wasn’t as powerful as its testament to Abad’s father. I’ve never read such a devoted work of love from a man about his father. I love my father, and I’d be considered a father’s son. But the old man was often hard on me, which I took as a source of pride. No fraternity hazing, police questioning, or any kind of chewing-out ever fazed me because I’d been screamed at so much, screamed at to the point of tears as a kid. I felt it toughened me up. I always thought I’d raise my own sons the same way.
Reading Oblivion has changed my mind. Here’s Abad’s father’s philosophy:
‘If you want your son to be good, make him happy; if you want him to be better, make him happier. We make our children happy so they’ll be good and so their goodness then increases their happiness.’
When he was 5 or 6, Abad missed the bus to school a few times. His father pulled him in his office and asked him if he really wanted to go to school. Or would he rather wait another year? Abad chose to wait, and his father accommodated him. When the next year came, Abad took his education more seriously than any of his classmates.
Abad’s father is generous with him to the point gringos would call him spoiled. As a young man Abad was studying Literature in Italy (after being expelled from a Colombian university). In Italy he grew depressed and wrote to his father, asking if he should leave school. His father’s reply:
My darling son: depression at your age is more common than you might think … And to tell you the truth, the idea that you might soon unpack your bags here, having chucked in all your European plans, makes your mother and me as happy as could be. You have more than earned the equivalent of any university “degree” and you’ve used your time so well to educate yourself culturally and personally that if university bores you it’s only natural. Whatever you do from here on in, whether you write or don’t write, whether you get a degree or not, whether you work in your mother’s business, or at El Mundo, or at La Inés, or teaching at a high school, or giving lectures like Estanislao Zuleta, or as a psychoanalyst to your parents, sisters and relatives, or simply being Héctor Abad Faciolince, will be fine …
You’re doing just fine and you’ll do better. Every year will be better, and when you get to my age or your grandfather’s age and you can enjoy the scenery around La Inés that I intend to leave to all of you, with the sunshine, heat and lush greenery, you’ll see I was right. Don’t stay there longer than you feel you can. If you want to come back I’ll welcome you with open arms. And if you regret it and want to go back again, we can buy you another return flight. As long as you never forget that the most important thing is that you return. A kiss from your father.
Abad’s father’s compassion and love for his son was unconditional and unflinching. The paisa culture and paramilitary violence aside, the most inspiring part of this book was the relationship between Hector Abad Gomez and Hector Abad Faciolince. It was so inspiring it will probably affect the way I treat my own children.
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