Fatherland: On Héctor Abad Faciolince
El olvido que seremos, the Spanish title of Oblivion, comes from a poem by Jorge Luis Borges that, as Abad Faciolince records in his diary, his father was carrying in his pocket when he was killed on August 25, 1987: “We found him in a pool of blood. I kissed him and he was warm. But still, very still. Rage nearly blocked my tears. The sadness kept me from feeling the full extent of my rage. My mother removed his wedding ring. I searched his pockets and found a poem.”
Here is the poem in question, to which Abad Faciolince originally assigned the title “Epitaph”:
Already we are the oblivion we shall be—
the elemental dust that does not know us,
the dust that once was red Adam and now is
all men, the dust we shall not see.
Already we are the two dates on the headstone,
the beginning and the end. The coffin,
the obscene decay and the shroud,
the death rites and the dirges.
I am not some fool who clings
to the magical sound of his own name.
I think, with hope, of that man
who will never know I walked the earth.
Beneath the blue indifference of heaven,
I find this thought consoling.
The story of how these lines by Borges turned up in the pocket of the murdered doctor led to a series of articles by Abad Faciolince himself, then to a bitter polemic with the Colombian poet Harold Alvarado Tenorio, and finally to a fascinating, almost thriller-like account, published in 2009 as “A Poem in the Pocket,” in a book that Abad Faciolince titled Traiciones de la memoria (Tricks of Memory).
Obsessed with unearthing the motive that led his father to copy these lines—which, incidentally, appear nowhere in Borges’s complete works—Abad Faciolince asked Alvarado Tenorio if he knew who had written them, for the latter had published a piece in the Bogotá magazine Número in October 1993 that had showcased five unpublished poems by Borges, including the one that Abad Gómez was carrying on the day of his death. Alvarado Tenorio told Abad Faciolince some elaborate story and, in the end, maintained that he had written the poems himself in imitation of the style of the great Argentinean writer.
Incredulous, Abad Faciolince proceeded to consult a wide range of Borges experts, including the writer’s biographers and his widow, Maria Kodama. All answered, without hesitation, that the text was apocryphal. Yet again, Abad Faciolince refused to give up and embarked on an investigation that led him halfway around the world, from Paris to Buenos Aires and from Mendoza to Medellín. After endless inquiries, the author of Oblivion discovered that his father had copied the lines from an article published in the magazine Semana on May 26, 1987, which in turn had lifted them from a book released in a print run of just 300 copies, published a few months earlier with the concise title 5 poemas by the tiny Argentinean house Ediciones Anónimos.
With the aid of a loyal assistant, dubbed Bea Pina, Abad Faciolince finally was able to uncover the story of the poem’s genesis. At the beginning of 1986, shortly before Borges moved permanently to Geneva—where he died on June 14—the painter Guillermo Roux, his wife Franca Beer and the poet Jean-Dominique Rey visited Borges at his house in Buenos Aires. According to Jaime Correas, the editor who oversaw the publication of the poems in Semana:
Roux did some sketches of him while [Rey] interviewed him. When the interview was over, Rey asked Borges for some unpublished poems. Borges told him that he would have them for him the next day, and Franca returned on her own to pick them up. Borges instructed her to open a drawer and take the poems she found there. She took them, made copies and returned them. There were six of them.
Like a good detective, Abad Faciolince wasn’t satisfied with this version of events, and eventually he managed to talk to most of the main players in the story, among them Roux, Beer and Rey. In the end, it was established that the poem in question had indeed been written by Borges, and that its true title was “Here. Today.” Alvarado Tenorio never acknowledged these facts, and he continued to concoct increasingly wild tales, including one in which it was the gunman who put the poem in Abad Gómez’s pocket. Abad Faciolince concludes:
I’m an absent-minded man, a forgetful man, sometimes a lazy man. Still, I can say that thanks to my efforts to preserve the memory of this ghost, my father—snatched from life on Calle Argentina in Medellín—something extraordinary happened to me: that afternoon his breast was shielded only by a fragile piece of paper, a poem, unable to save him from death. But it’s beautiful to think that a handful of words stained by the last threads of his life should have unexpectedly rescued, for the world, a forgotten sonnet by Borges from oblivion.
* * *
From the start of Oblivion, Abad Faciolince emphasizes that he has no interest in writing a hagiography, and that he hopes to be able to offer an account of his father that includes the bad as well as the good. Despite all his efforts, he fails. This is not because he lacks storytelling skill—evident in such notable novels as Basura (2000) or Angosta (2004)—or because he’s unable to achieve sufficient objectivity in dealing with someone so close to him, but rather because everything indicates that, beyond some minor faults or relative excesses, Abad Gómez didn’t have a dark side. Or if he did—as his son ventures to suggest here and there—his faults were confined to his private life and almost never cropped up in his performance as father, doctor or public figure.
Most of the book dwells on that first role. Little does it matter that our vantage point is that of a son dazzled by his father’s wisdom and love: Abad Faciolince renders a vivid and luminous portrait that the absence of contrasts never renders monotonous or dull. If Oblivion were a novel, Abad Gómez’s perpetual good nature might have been a bit wearying; but this is a testament—which is how the book should be read—and by that light the existence of a man with the heart and integrity of Abad Gómez cannot fail to move us.
Oblivion is also a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that describes the sentimental and civic education of Abad Faciolince in the mold of his father. His childhood world is typical of today’s Latin American bourgeoisie: dominated by a concern with appearances and good manners, as well as the omnipresence of Catholicism and the hypocrisy of those who practice it. God, or rather religion, marks the different characters in the book. On one side are Abad Faciolince’s mother—a fervent Catholic, the niece of bishops—and his sisters, always preoccupied with the observance of social norms; and on the other are his father, a freethinker and Catholic in pectore, scourge of the most reactionary elements of the church, and the author, who is his father’s disciple.
Abad Gómez is an example to those around him: a doctor always ready to aid the weak and the poor, a fighter for social justice who unites the prevention of disease with his efforts as a promoter of public health policy, a champion of human rights who puts his principles before his own physical safety. “As my father saw it,” writes the son, “a doctor had to investigate and understand the relationship between patients’ economic situation and their health, in order to stop being a witch doctor and become a social activist and scientist.” This understanding of medicine led him to participate in dozens of social improvement initiatives, but also to quarrel with the political and academic authorities of Medellín, Antioquia and the whole country, who always eyed him with suspicion.
The family story line reaches its zenith with the death of Marta, one of the narrator’s sisters, “the star, the singer, the best student, the actress.” Diagnosed with melanoma, the 16-year-old quickly succumbs, and the quotidian happiness of the Abad family is suddenly shattered, as if in anticipation of what’s to come. From this point on, the book embarks on a more sober and contained phase bounded by two deaths. After his daughter dies, Abad Gómez becomes increasingly involved in civil action, just as the Colombian conflict is heating up.
“I don’t know at what point the thirst for justice crosses the dangerous line beyond which it becomes also a temptation to martyrdom,” writes the son in what comes closest to a reproach of his father. “I’m certain my father was not tempted towards martyrdom before Marta’s death, but after this family tragedy all problems seemed small, and no price seemed as great as before.”
Abad Gómez’s clashes with the authorities became more severe, more radical. First as president of the Association of Professors of the University of Antioquia, and then as part of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, the doctor no longer stifled his denunciations of injustice and of the homicides committed by the paramilitaries (and also by the guerrillas, though sometimes he justified them). “His final struggle, then, was also a medical struggle,” writes his son. “He published articles in which he named torturers and murderers. He condemned every massacre, every kidnapping, every ‘disappearance,’ every act of torture.” Don Héctor’s integrity seemed to protect him, but the times grew increasingly dark. Between July and August 1987, dozens of professors and students from the University of Antioquia were killed. It was rumored that he was in danger, but he chose not to surrender to fear and blackmail.
On the morning of Tuesday, August 25, 1987, Luis Felipe Vélez, the head of the teachers union of Antioquia, was killed. Ignoring warnings, Don Héctor decided to attend the wake, which was held at the office of the teachers union, accompanied by Leonardo Betancur, one of his disciples, and an unidentified woman who later disappeared. As Abad Gómez and Betancur entered the building on Calle Argentina, two young men on a motorcycle shot them at close range. Upon arriving at the scene, his son found in his pocket, in addition to the Borges poem, a list of names of those who had been marked for death.
“Already we are the oblivion we shall be”: The oblivion invoked by Borges is something we are all fated to know, but thanks to these sad and luminous pages, Abad Faciolince permits us to remember—if only for a few fleeting instants—the noble existence of a good man.