Fatherland: On Héctor Abad Faciolince
One of the most lucid and devastating testaments to the relationship—or clash—between fathers and sons is a long letter written by Franz Kafka in Schelesen, Bohemia, in November 1919. It begins:
Dearest Father: You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete, because even in writing this fear and its consequences hamper me in relation to you and because the magnitude of the subject goes far beyond the scope of my memory and power of reasoning.
More cold and stiff than recriminatory or angry, the letter’s tone is that of a clinical examination. By exploring the abyss that divides father and son, Kafka undertakes an autopsy of the power incarnated in the stern and distant figure of the father. Next to this big, physically imposing man, who presents himself as the sole bearer of truth, the young Kafka feels helpless and weak.
“You were for me the measure of all things,” he writes, in acknowledgment of his subordinate position. “From your arm chair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal.” The son finds himself trapped in an inhospitable place, the laws of which he is unable to decipher, because the person responsible for enforcing them—the elder Kafka—doesn’t even do so in a systematic way:
Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: into one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then into a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally into a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.
The whole literary universe of Kafka, from The Metamorphosis to The Trial, seems to coalesce along these lines: suddenly, for no reason at all, a person finds himself in an incomprehensible situation, subject to accusations or arbitrary punishments, reduced to the condition of an insect, a pariah, an accused man. Too often Kafka is mistaken for a writer of the fantastic, but there is no more realistic description of the awakening of the consciousness of a son or citizen subject to implacable authority than Kafka’s letter. The consequence, according to young K., is the loss of one’s voice; in a home—or a society—where disagreement is banned, words lose their meaning: “What I got from you…was a hesitant, stammering mode of speech, and even that was still too much for you, and finally I kept silent, at first perhaps from defiance, and then because I couldn’t either think or speak in your presence.”
This is Bohemia, at the end of World War I, and young K.’s letter reads not only as a portrait of the authoritarianism in his family sphere, but as a foreshadowing of the totalitarian regimes that will lay claim to the map of Europe during the following decades. The private and the public coincide: the son’s denunciation becomes that of the citizen who, bullied into silence, battles his tongue-tied dumbness and recovers his voice. Nothing could be more unlike the young Kafka—a skinny clerk with his head in the clouds—than the heroic figure of the dissident, but in writing this missive dismantling the power structure of his family, Kafka anticipates those who would soon question, from myriad perspectives, the patriarchal system of the West.
Kafka is not the first, of course, to establish the connection between father and nation—the very terms Vaterland, “fatherland” and patria already presume it—but he is among the most deft at revealing the subtle mechanisms of oppression, employing analogy and metaphor to trace the logic of fear that reigns in societies where the possibility of talking back to authority peaceably has been stamped out.
Meanwhile, another Jew from Bohemia, though a Vienna transplant, is also striving to explain the power relationships rooted deep in families. With his interest in probing the ”Oedipal impulse,” Sigmund Freud differs little from the Czech novelist: by portraying—imagining—the father as the tyrant whom every son must topple in order to snatch away the wife-mother, the psychoanalyst justifies, from the realm of the unconscious, the revolutions that will challenge the infinite horde of dictators who present themselves as paternal figures. “Killing the father” becomes, in the Freudian formulation, not just a dictate of the first-born son, but a political and cultural agenda. Since parents are, by nature, dictators, the only alternative is to wage a war against them that may last a lifetime. Any authority figure—writer, artist, scientist, even psychoanalyst—becomes a target.
The end of World War II marks the triumph of this parricidal agenda, which reaches its peak with the student protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Suddenly, the idea of annihilating the father becomes fashionable: there’s no easier way to make one’s mark than to launch an attack on some tutelary figure. The veiled brutality of Kafka’s Letter to His Father comes to embody an omnipresent yearning, and its appearance is soon followed by a multiplicity of novels, memoirs and autobiographies, such as Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962) and Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (1998), in which protagonists eliminate their fathers in a metaphorical way.
The memoir Oblivion, by the Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince, first published in 2006 and recently published in an English translation by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey, is surprising because it is a Letter to His Father in which the author’s own father, Don Héctor Abad Gómez, a doctor and liberal involved in human rights work, is not symbolically killed by his son but rather slain by paramilitary forces linked to the Colombian state. Yet the book isn’t an apologia for the father’s public role. Rather, Oblivion is a son’s attempt to resuscitate his father, a man who—tolerant and kind, with a hatred of discrimination and brutality—is the opposite of the elder Kafka: a good father whose portrait represents a singular act of literary defiance.
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