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Oblivion: A Memoir
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Oblivion: A Memoir

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by Hector Abad, Anne McLean (Translator), Rosalind Harvey (Translator)

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"An irreplaceable testimony of the struggle for democracy and tolerance in Latin America." —El País

Héctor Abad's Oblivion is a heartbreaking, exquisitely written memorial to the author's father, Héctor Abad Gómez, whose criticism of the Colombian regime led to his murder by paramilitaries


"An irreplaceable testimony of the struggle for democracy and tolerance in Latin America." —El País

Héctor Abad's Oblivion is a heartbreaking, exquisitely written memorial to the author's father, Héctor Abad Gómez, whose criticism of the Colombian regime led to his murder by paramilitaries in 1987. Twenty years in the writing, it paints an unforgettable picture of a man who followed his conscience and paid for it with his life during one of the darkest periods in Latin America's recent history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“It is very difficult to summarize Oblivion without betraying it, because, like all great works, it is many things at once. To say that it is a heartrending memoir of the author's family and father--who was murdered by a hired assassin--is true, but paltry and infinitesimal, because the book is also a moving immersion into the inferno of Colombian political violence, into the life and soul of the city of Medellín, into the private life and public courage of a family, a true story that is also a superb fiction due to the way it is written and constructed, and one of the most eloquent arguments written in our time or any time against terror as an instrument of political action.” —Mario Vargas Llosa

“[Oblivion] emits a primal yet articulate howl . . . Mr. Abad's prose, in this translation by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey, is elastic and alive . . . In Spanish the verb ‘to remember' is ‘recordar,' the author reminds us, a word that derives from ‘cor,' the Latin for heart. This memoir is extravagantly big-hearted. It will be stocked, in good bookstores, in the nonfiction or belles-lettres sections. A wise owner might also place a copy under the sign that more simply reads: Parenting.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“[An] admirable effort at speaking the unspeakable, at verbalizing the pain accumulated over decades, is Héctor Abad's extraordinary memoir Oblivion. It's been years since I read such a powerful meditation on loss . . . I confess not to have known of [Abad] before, even though this is his second book translated into English. This ignorance was actually beneficial, for it allowed me to submerge myself in the narrative without preconception. I emerged from that submersion hypnotized. Oblivion will remind you in equal measure of Vittorio de Sica's Italian neo-Realist movie The Bicycle Thief and Elie Wiesel's Holocaust novel Night . . . [Abad's] desire to explore the echoes of memory with meticulous care, to touch the wound of the past through lucid prose, is an act of valor.” —Ilan Stavans, San Francisco Chronicle

“A family memoir that deserves classic status . . . [Abad] not only pays radiant homage to a hero but champions the path of peaceful change he so steadfastly took.” —Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

“A tremendous and necessary book, devastatingly courageous and honest. At times I wondered how [Abad] was brave enough to write it.” —Javier Cercas

“A beautiful and profoundly moving work.” —El País

“[Oblivion] is a shattering chronicle of Colombia's violence. But it is also an inspiring tribute to tolerance and paternal love.” —Giles Tremlett, The Guardian

“A beautiful, authentic, and moving book.” —Rosa Montero

“[A] great and deeply moving testament.” —Kate Saunders , The Times (London)

“An unbearably moving, eloquent tribute to the author's father--who was murdered by Colombian paramilitaries in 1987--that is fit to burst with love and pride.” —Holly Kyte, The Telegraph

“I store up what I have read by Héctor Abad like spherical, polished, luminous little balls of bread, ready for when I have to walk through a vast forest in the nighttime.” —Manuel Rivas

“Colombian author Abad dedicates this loving and sentimental memoir to his father, Héctor Abad Gómez, a professor and doctor devoted to his family, "moved to tears…by poetry and music," and committed to a better Colombia. The latter aspiration cost him his life when he was assassinated in 1987, and his son began writing this book five years later. Abad spends much of the book expressing his love for his father, but it is his discussion of Gómez's public health and human rights projects--such as founding "the Colombian Institute of Family Wellbeing, which built aqueducts and sewer systems in villages, rural districts, and cities"--that reveals what a remarkable educator, reformer, and activist the senior Abad was, and how his assassination was a tragedy for a family and a nation.” —Publishers Weekly

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


A boy hand in hand with his father


In the house lived ten women, one boy and a man. The women were Tatá, who had been my grandmother's nanny and was almost a hundred years old, partially deaf and practically blind; two girls who did the cooking and cleaning - Emma and Teresa; my five sisters: Maryluz, Clara, Eva, Marta and Sol; my mother; and a nun. The boy, me, loved the man, his father, above all things. He loved him more than God. One day I had to choose between God and my dad, and I chose my dad. It was the first theological disagreement of my life and I had it with Sister Josefa, the nun who looked after Sol and me, the two youngest. If I close my eyes I can still hear her harsh, gruff voice clashing with my childish one. It was a bright morning and we were out in the sun on the patio, watching the hummingbirds doing their rounds of the flowers. Out of the blue, the Sister said to me:

'Your father is going to go to hell.'

'Why?' I asked.

'Because he doesn't go to Mass.'

'What about me?'

'You're going to go to heaven, because you pray with me every night.'

In the evenings, while she got undressed behind the folding screen with the embroidered unicorns, we said Hail Marys and the Lord's Prayer. At the end, before going to sleep, we recited the Creed: 'I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible ...'She took off her habit behind the screen so we wouldn't see her hair; she'd warned us that seeing a nun's hair was a mortal sin. I, who understand things well, but slowly, had spent the whole day imagining myself in heaven without my father (I was leaning out a window in paradise and I could see him down below, pleading for help as he burned in the flames of hell), and that night, when she began to recite the prayers from behind the unicorn screen, I said: 'I'm not going to pray anymore.'

'Oh, no?' she challenged me.

'No. I don't want to go to heaven anymore. I don't like heaven if my daddy's not going to be there. I'd rather go to hell with him.'

Sister Josefa leaned around the screen (it was the only time we saw her without her veil, that is, the only time we committed the mortal sin of seeing her messy, unattractive hair) and shouted: 'Hush!' Then she crossed herself.

I loved my father with a love I didn't feel again until my own children were born. When I had them I recognized it, because it is an equally intense love, although different, and in a certain sense its opposite. I felt that nothing could happen to me if I was with my father. And I feel that nothing can happen to my children if they are with me. That is, I know that I would give up my own life, without a moment's hesitation, to defend my children. And I know my father would have given his life, without a moment's hesitation, to defend me. As a child the most unbearable idea was that my father might die, and I resolved to throw myself into the River Medellín if he did. Likewise, today I fear the death of one of my children much more than my own. All this is a very primitive, ancestral thing, which one feels in the deepest depths of consciousness, in a place that precedes thought. It is something one does not think, but which simply is,without any mitigating factors; something one knows not with the head but with the guts.

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 the pillowcase. I liked his voice, I liked his hands, 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 the milk cart announced the dawn.

Copyright © 2006 by Héctor Abad Translation copyright © 2010 by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey

Meet the Author

Héctor Abad is one of Colombia's leading writers. Born in 1958, he grew up in Medellín, where he studied medicine, philosophy, and journalism. After being expelled from university for writing a defamatory text against the Pope, he moved to Italy before returning to his homeland in 1987.

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