Oblivion: A Memoirby Héctor Abad
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/i>
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.
“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
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 318 KB
Read an Excerpt
By Héctor Abad, Anne McLean, Rosalind Harvey
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2006 Héctor Abad
All rights reserved.
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.CHAPTER 2
My father let me do anything I wanted. Well, perhaps anything is an exaggeration. I couldn't do disgusting things like pick my nose or eat dirt; I couldn't hit my little sister ('not even with a rose petal'); I couldn't go out without telling someone I was going out, or cross the road without looking both ways. I had to be more respectful to Emma and Teresa (or any of the other maids we had in those years: Mariela, Rosa, Margarita ...) than to any guest or relative; I had to bathe every day, wash my hands before and brush my teeth after eating, and keep my fingernails clean ... But I was meek, and learned these basic things very quickly. By anything I mean that I could take, for example, his books or records whenever I wished, and touch his things (his shaving brush, handkerchiefs, bottle of aftershave, record player, typewriter, pen) without asking permission. I didn't have to ask for money either. He put it like this:
'Everything I have is yours. There's my wallet, take what you need.'
And there it was, always, in the back pocket of his trousers. I would take my father's wallet out and count the money he had. I never knew whether to take a peso, two pesos or five pesos. I'd think about it for a moment and decide not to take anything. My mother had warned us often:
My mother always called us niñas because the girls were a clear majority so she ignored the grammatical rule (one man among a thousand women turns the whole group masculine).
'Niñas! Professors are paid very badly in this country, they earn almost nothing. Don't take advantage of your father because he's silly and gives you whatever you want. He can't help himself.'
I knew that my father would let me take all the money in his wallet. Sometimes, when it was at its fullest, at the beginning of the month, I'd take out a twenty-peso note while my father was having his siesta and take it to my room. I'd play with it for a while, knowing it was mine, and fantasize about buying things (a bicycle, a football, an electric car set, a microscope, a telescope, a horse) as if I'd won the lottery. But I would always put it back later. There was hardly ever very much money, and sometimes, at the end of the month, none at all. We weren't rich, although it seemed like we were because we had a place in the country, a car, domestics and even a resident nun. When we asked my mother if we were rich or poor, she always answered the same way: 'Niñas, we are neither one nor the other. We're comfortable.' My father often gave me money without my asking, and then I had no qualms in accepting it.
My confusion about gender, grammatical and otherwise, displayed itself the first time I managed to comb my own hair. Having neatly parted it on the right (the wrong side for a boy), I asked my sisters, referring to myself with a feminine diminutive:
'¿Quedé bien peinadita? Does my hair look pretty?'
I can still hear the chorus of giggles from all five girls ringing in my ears. I've never combed my hair since.
According to my mother, and she's right, my father was incapable of understanding household finances. Against her husband's wishes, she had gone to work in a little office downtown: his professor's salary never stretched to the end of the month and, since my father had no concept of saving, there were no reserves to fall back on. When the utility bills arrived, or when my mother told him they had to pay the builder who'd repaired the leaky roof, or the electrician who'd fixed the short circuit, my father would get in a bad mood and shut himself up in his study to calm down, reading or listening to classical music at full volume. He was generally the one who had hired the builders, but he always forgot to ask beforehand how much they would charge for their work, so they ended up charging whatever they liked. If my mother arranged for repairs, she would get a couple of quotes, do some haggling, and as a result there were never any surprises when the job was done.
My father never had enough money because he gave or lent money to anyone who asked – relatives, acquaintances, strangers, beggars. The students at the university took advantage of him. So did the caretaker of the farm, Don Dionisio, a brazen Yugoslav who made my father give him advances on future apples, pears and Mediterranean figs that never showed up in our orchards. In the end Dionisio bought some land of his own with these advances, and used it to set up a business on the side, selling strawberries and garden vegetables he'd propagated from our stock, and doing quite well for himself. Then my father hired our maid Teresa's parents Don Feliciano and Doña Rosa to be the caretakers, as they'd been starving to death up in Amalfi, a village in the northeast. Unfortunately Don Feliciano, almost eighty years old and racked by arthritis, was incapable of looking after the crops, so within six months Don Dionisio's vegetables and strawberries had gone to ruin and the farm was choked with weeds. But of course we couldn't send Doña Rosa and Don Feliciano back to Amalfi to starve to death for the sake of a few spoiled vegetables; we'd have to wait for them to die of old age. And in the end that's what happened, whereupon Edilso and Belén moved in as the new caretakers. Thirty years later they are still there, under a very strange contract of my father's invention: we supply the land, they look after the cows, and all the milk is theirs to keep or sell.
I knew that his students frequently asked him to lend them money because I often accompanied him to the university, and his office resembled a place of pilgrimage, with students lined up outside the door. It's true that some wanted to discuss academic or personal matters, but most were there to ask for loans. Whenever I was there, I'd see my father take out his wallet several times to hand over bills that would never be returned. Consequently there was always a swarm of scroungers around him.
'Poor kids,' he'd say, 'they can't even afford lunch; and it's impossible to study when you're hungry.'CHAPTER 3
Before I started kindergarten, I had to stay at home every day with Sol and the nun, which I didn't like. When I tired of my solitary little boy's games (fantasies on the floor with castles and soldiers), the most entertaining thing Sister Josefa could think of, apart from praying, was to watch the hummingbirds sipping at the flowers on the patio. Or sometimes we went for a stroll around the neighbourhood, Sister Josefa pushing my sleeping sister in the buggy, while I rode on the bars at the back when I got tired of walking.
This daily routine bored me, so I would ask my father to take me along to his office, in the Department of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, next door to Saint Vincent de Paul Hospital. If he was too busy to have me with him that morning, he would at least take me for a drive around the block. I'd sit on his knees and steer, while he kept an eye on me. His car was a big, old, noisy, pale blue Plymouth, an automatic, and it would start to overheat and smoke under the bonnet at the very sight of the first slope. Whenever he could, at least once a week, my father did take me to the university. On the way in we would pass the amphitheatre where anatomy classes were taught, and I'd beg him to show me the cadavers. He would always answer: 'No, not yet.' We had the same exchange every week:
'Daddy, I want to see a dead person.'
'No, not yet.'
Once, when he knew there wasn't a class, or a corpse, we did go inside the amphitheatre, which was very old; the kind with stands all around so students could get a good view of the dissection. In the centre of the room was a marble slab for the protagonist of the class, just like in the Rembrandt painting. That day the amphitheatre was empty of cadavers, students and anatomy professors. However, in this emptiness there persisted a smell of death, like an impalpable ghostly presence, that made me aware, in that very moment, of my heart beating in my chest.
While my father was teaching, I would sit at his desk and wait for him, drawing pictures or pretending to write, tapping at the typewriter the way he did, with the index finger of each hand. From the distance, Gilma Eusse, the secretary, watched me, smiling mischievously. She had a framed wedding photo of herself in a bridal gown, marrying my father. I asked over and over again why she had married my father, and she would explain, smiling, that it had been a wedding by proxy, to a Mexican man named Iván Restrepo, and that my father had merely represented him in the church. While she told me of this incomprehensible wedding (as incomprehensible as that of my own parents, which was also by proxy, the only photos showing my mother marrying Uncle Bernardo) Gilma Eusse smiled with the most cheerful, friendly face a person could imagine. She seemed the happiest woman in the world until one day she put a gun in her mouth and shot herself – no one knew why. But on those mornings of my childhood she'd help me roll the paper into the typewriter, so I could write. When my father came back from class I'd show him the result.
'Look what I wrote.'
There were a few lines of gobbledygook:
'Very good!' my father would say with a satisfied chuckle, and congratulate me with a big kiss on the cheek, next to my ear. His kisses, large and resounding, deafened us and rang in our ears for a long time afterwards, like a memory at once happy and painful. One week he set me a task before he went off to teach: a page of vowels, first A, then E, and so on; and over the following weeks he introduced more and more consonants, the most common to start with – C, P, T – and then all the rest, even X and H, which, although silent and rarely used, was very important because it was the first letter of the name we shared. As a result, when I started school I already knew all the letters of the alphabet, not just by name but by sound. When the first grade teacher, Lyda Ruth Espinosa, taught us to read and write, I learned in a second, understanding the mechanism straightaway, as if by magic, as if I'd been born to read.
There was one word, however, that I could not get into my head, and it took me years to learn to read it correctly. Every time it appeared in print (thank goodness not often) my mind went blank, and my voice wouldn't work. I trembled in dread whenever I saw it coming, knowing I wouldn't be able to pronounce it properly. It was the Spanish word for parish priest: párroco. I could never remember where the stress fell, and absurdly, almost always put it on rolling the R – 'parrrrrroco' – rather than on one of the vowels. Or I might say 'parróco', with the stress in the middle, or 'parrocó', with the stress at the end. In any case, never 'párroco'. My sister Clara took inordinate delight in teasing me about this mental block, and was forever writing the word down and asking me, with a radiant smile: 'Chubby, what does it say here?' As soon as I saw the word I'd turn red and not be able to read it.
It was the same, years later, when it came to dancing. My sisters were all great dancers, and like them I had a good ear, at least for singing, but when they asked me to dance I'd get the stress all wrong, keeping time only with their laughter at my total lack of rhythm. And although there came a day when I learned to read párroco correctly, dance steps have forever eluded me.
It is difficult enough to have just one mother; I can't tell you what it was like to have six. I think my father understood early on that making fun of me was certain to put me off anything for good, that if I even suspected that what I was doing might appear ludicrous or laughable, I would never try it again. When he celebrated even the meaningless gobbledygook I wrote, teaching me slowly and patiently how each letter represented a sound, perhaps it was so that my early errors wouldn't provoke laughter. On his typewriter I learned the whole alphabet, the numbers and all the punctuation marks, which may explain why a keyboard – much more than a pencil or pen – is for me the truest representation of the act of writing. That way of going along pressing sounds, as on a piano, to convert ideas into letters and words, seemed to me from the start – and still seems to me – one of the most extraordinary acts of magic in the world.
In any case, my sisters, blessed with the incredible linguistic ability of women, never let me speak. I only had to open my mouth to say something, and they'd already said it, in more detail and much more wittily and intelligently than I ever could have. Sometimes it seems to me that I learned how to write only so that I could communicate every once in a while.
Excerpted from Oblivion by Héctor Abad, Anne McLean, Rosalind Harvey. Copyright © 2006 Héctor Abad. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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.
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. He is the author of Oblivion.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews