Thursday, 6 September 2012

Book review: Hector Abad's Oblivion

Oblivion: A Memoir, by Hector Abad, translated by Anne McLean and Rosalinde Harvey

Hector Abad's Colombian family memoir Oblivion was recommended to me from a couple of different quarters recently, and I'm very glad it was. I want to tell you that this book is both bleak, almost despairing, and uplifting, and you're going to tell me that makes no sense, but honestly - try it.

Abad's father, who had the same name as him, was a doctor, a passionate public health advocate, and a human rights campaigner. It was these last two which brought him unwelcome attention and ultimately led to his murder on 25 August, 1987. 20 years later, his son sets out to tell his father's story and thus stave off the inevitable oblivion which ultimately awaits us all.

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. 
 The book delays the inevitable description of violence, meandering around childhood stories and a privileged youth lived among the upper-middle class of Antioquia. Then it draws in the horror of living in a country at times branded the most violent in the world. The father's death looms ahead, but there is another family tragedy which is almost as shocking and less expected. At times, Abad eulogises his father with exaggerated accounts of his virtues; at others, he highlights the human flaws. When at last the murder comes, the reader knows instantly, just as the children in the family did: "Is it dad? Have they killed him?"

I would like to read this book in the original but I didn't find a copy easy to get hold of, but I was more than satisfied by McLean and Harvey's fluid, Colombian-infused translation. I also expected to like this book - but "like" is not the right word for something so poignant and so gripping. It leaves you, as I said, despairing of the violence people do to each other and at the same time uplifted by the strength of family ties and the bonds of friendship. 
His murderers remain at large: every day they grow in strength; and I cannot fight them with my fists. It is only with my fingers, pressing one key after another, that I can tell the truth and bear witness to the injustice. I use his own weapon: words. What for? For nothing; or for the most simple and essential reason: so it will be known. To extend his memory a little longer, before the inevitable oblivion.

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