O is for Oblivion

“Yo amaba a mi papá con un amor animal. Me gustaba su olor, y también el recuerdo de su olor, sobre la cama, cuando se iba de viaje, y yo les rogaba a las muchachas y a mi mamá que no cambiaran las sábanas ni la funda de la almohada. Me gustaba su voz, me gustaban sus manos, la pulcritud de su ropa y la meticulosa limpieza de su cuerpo. Cuando me daba miedo, por la noche, me pasaba para su cama y siempre me abría un campo a su lado para que yo me acostara. Nunca dijo que no. Mi mamá protestaba, decía que estaba malcriando, pero mi papá se corría hasta el borde del colchón y me dejaba quedar. Yo sentía por mi papá lo mismo que mis amigos decían que sentían por la mamá. Yo olía a mi papá, le ponía un brazo encima, me metía el dedo pulgar en la boca, y me dormía profundo hasta que el ruido de los cascos de los caballos y las campanadas del carro de la leche anunciaban el amanecer.” (El Olvido que Seremos, Héctor Abad Faciolince, 2008, p. 13).

“I loved my father with an animal love. I liked his smell and also the memory of his smell on the bed when he was away on a trip. I would beg the maids and my mother not to change the sheets or pillowcases. I liked his voice, I liked his hand, his immaculate clothes and the meticulous cleanliness of his body. I felt for my father the same way my friends said they felt about their mothers. When I was afraid during the night, I would go to his bed and he would always make space for me at his side to lie down. He never said no to me. My mother protested — she said he was spoiling me — but my father moved over to the edge of the mattress and let me stay. I inhaled my father’s scent, put my arm around him, stuck my thumb in my mouth, and slept soundly until the sound of horses’ hoofs and the jangling of of the milk cart announced the dawn.”

(Oblivion: A Memoir. Héctor Abad Faciolince, Translators: Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey, 2011, Old Street Publishing, p. 5).

With a Proustian evocation of memory and scent, D.H. Lawrence’s earthy portrait of touch, Yeatsian imagery of dawn, and García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Héctor Abad Faciolince has written a memoir that is not a memoir, but a memorial to his father, Doctor Héctor Abad Gómez, who was assassinated on the street, 25 August 1987. Not murdered, but assassinated. There is, as I will explain, a terrible irony in this man’s death.

His fame? The good doctor, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Antioquia, Department of Preventative Medicine, and founder of the Colombian National School of Public Health, a human rights organization, had criticized both sides of the political divide in Colombia for propagating violence. Dr. Gómez was active in speaking on behalf of the poor and marginalized in Colombia in general and in Medellin in particular. The ‘Establishment’ resisted his plea for something simple: clean drinking water, while the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas with U.S. military assistance, were assassinating those they considered in opposition to their socialist agenda. Politics is never simple.

The professor never shirked his ethical and moral responsibility to speak for those less fortunate: How could one put into one hand of a patient the medicine to cure that patient and yet expect that patient to take that pill with water that was poisonous in the other? For Doctor Gómez, it was simply unconscionable. As often is the case in politics, there is rhetoric and rivalry, but in Colombia, as in other places in the world, the losing side doesn’t lose a lot of money, declare concession speeches and fade away; rather, they suffer and they die. Violently.

Dr. Gómez was waging his campaign for clean drinking water, amongst other health reforms, at the height of ‘El narcotráfico.’ Nancy Reagan was telling kids to  ‘Just Say No,’ while Ronald Reagan was denying Iran-Contra. The year before, Americans were listening to what they shouldn’t have been listening to — courtesy of the Parents Music Resource Center and Tipper Gore — and revisiting the tedious debate of what constitutes pornography, as the Meese Commission convened to discuss the prevalence of porn in U.S. society. Sorry, it wasn’t porn, folks; it was the market success of delivering porn with “new technology” called VHS. Video may have killed the radio star, but VHS brought porn into American homes.

I eschew memoirs because I find them self-serving and often selective. With Oblivion, I do not and cannot. It is refreshing that a boy runs to his father and not to his mother; it is refreshing to read about a loving household instead of abuse; and it is refreshing to read about Character and Integrity. What I praise in Oblivion is a composite of virtues that are often ascribed to conservatives and bandied about in politics. I eschew politics too, for the simple fact that conservatives conserve nothing and I live in a republic, not a democracy. In a painful way, I am reminded again and again throughout Oblivion that money is green. It is not, in and of itself, political; it is the wanting, the hoarding, and the protecting of it that is. I am of an age where I don’t subscribe to prefabricated party jargon and mantras. Politics is always about money, always someone’s ‘special interest,’ and the issue is always how a representative with that power will spend money. In the context of the memoir, we are reminded that health care is not and should never be equated with profit: profit is not an ex nihilo affair.

In reading the quote, the language might seem homoerotic. The author is not gay; not that it matters. The memoir is not all lead and despair. There is humor. There is the house full of women: sisters and the elderly nun who changes behind a screen, because nobody should see her bad hair. Young Héctor’s mother calls out ‘Niñas!’ when she summons her children — the team of translators remind you, the reader, that his mother defies the grammatical rule in Spanish that says “one man among a thousand women turns the whole group masculine.” She will have none of that. The nun, who tells him that his father will not go to heaven because he does not pray to God, is scandalized when the young Héctor tells her that he is not interested in heaven if his father is not there. Something only a child would say.

Oblivion is a book told in hindsight, through the eyes of a man who cannot go back to the past and say the things he would have wanted to say, although he knew that his father loved him and his father knew that his son loved him. Oblivion is unfortunately a true story and a painful, human one. One of his sisters died from cancer. He and his father did not always agree. His mother, who is still living, was Catholic, while his father was an agnostic; he himself was critical of the papacy and thrown out of the university for it. I found Héctor’s solution amusing: he moved to Italy. Oblivion took twenty years for the author to write. Read it, and you’ll understand why.

The heart of the memoir is Love and Violence, the love of a group of people and the violence of a society and of groups of people. I said at the start of this essay that Doctor Gómez’s death was ironic. Dead in the street, shot six times in the head, he had in his wallet a poem that gave his son the title for the memoir, El Olvido que Seremos, and another piece of paper with a list of names given to him by a journalist.

The poem was by Jorge Luis Borges and signed JLB. Whether or not the poem is indeed by Borges — it is disputed — is of no concern to me; its presence is poetic. The other piece of paper? It was a death list and the doctor’s name was on it. He considered it a sign that he was doing something with his life.  He considered it an honor to be on it. A  journalist had given him the list, informing him that his life was in danger. Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The other irony is that Jorge Luis Borges had died 14 June 1986.

Mario Vargas Llosa is quoted on the cover jacket of this book, “It is very difficult to summarize Oblivion without betraying it, because, like all great works, it is many things at once.” I read that twice. As readers we let the storyteller betray us in the narrative. It is entertainment, a guided tour of human emotions. It is a complicity as old as Homer. In society, we are complicit in who it is we elect and in what we tolerate. Human affairs should not amount to six bullets to the head, a dead man, a father, lying in the street, his life snuffed out because he had been advocating for something as simple as clean water. A decent human being fighting for basic human decency. What is human is that what he carried in his wallet was what mattered to him. It was not credit cards, symbols of society. It was a poem, a symbol of being human.

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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