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.
* * *
Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Colombia became one of the most strife-ridden regions on the planet. In the heat of the cold war, numerous guerrilla groups fought for the right to make revolution against governments they believed to be imperialist or illegitimate; most prominent were the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), formed in the mid-1960s and still active, as well as the Nineteenth of April Movement (M-19), launched in 1970 and demobilized in the 1990s.
During the presidency of Julio César Turbay Ayala (1978–82), the Colombian state embarked on a strategy of frontal assault against the guerrillas. Nevertheless, the formation of the paramilitary group called Death to Kidnappers (MAS), at the beginning of 1982, plunged the country into an unprecedented spiral of violence, alternately unleashed by various guerrilla organizations and by groups clandestinely supported by the government. Composed of small industrialists and ranchers, members of the Medellín cartel, former soldiers and private security forces, MAS proposed to use every means at its disposal to put an end to the kidnappings carried out by the guerrillas. A year after its creation, its death squads had already been judged responsible for 240 killings, mainly of peasants, community leaders and left-wing activists.
In 1982, a new organization, the Association of Middle Magdalena Ranchers and Farmers (ACDEGAM), was established to provide a legal front for the paramilitaries. After an initial stage in which it created institutions charged with promoting national values and anticommunism, it later began to concentrate its resources on supporting the activities of MAS. When, following peace talks initiated by President Belisario Betancur (1982–86), former members of the FARC and communist militants together created the Patriotic Union party, the ACDEGAM and MAS made every effort to eliminate its leaders and supporters, beginning with Jaime Pardo, one of the new party’s driving forces, who was assassinated by a gunman in La Mesa on October 11, 1987.
In the Antioquia region outside Medellín, paramilitary organizations largely owed their existence to the rise of the Castaño family. Fidel and Carlos Castaño, sons of a rancher kidnapped and assassinated by the FARC, organized a network of shock troops for the purpose of combating the guerrillas in the area; they are accused of drug trafficking, political assassinations and violent massacres. In order to professionalize his operation, Carlos Castaño, alias “El Pelao,” traveled to Israel and later studied with Yair (or Jair) Klein, a former soldier who, under cover of his security firm, Spearhead, advised the paramilitaries in guerrilla tactics for some years.
It was around this time that Héctor Abad Gómez was assassinated in Medellín by a pair of gunmen. Abad Gómez had been a professor at the University of Antioquia Medical School, founder of the School of Public Health and a consultant for the World Health Organization. Retired from his academic work, he became a tireless activist who over the years had come to sympathize increasingly with the left, though he never stopped identifying himself as a democrat: for all his leftist sympathies, Abad Gómez still believed political change could come only through debate and the ballot box, not through protest or revolt. When the clashes between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries grew bloodier, he created (along with a couple of friends) the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights of Antioquia. Though the legal investigation never cleared up the facts, his death seemed consistent with the paramilitaries’ tactic of eliminating anyone opposed to their interests.
Almost twenty years after Abad Gómez’s death, his son, novelist Héctor Abad Faciolince, chose to tell his father’s story in Oblivion. The strength of this intimate portrait of the murdered doctor lies in the sincerity and force with which a son re-creates the life of one of the many innocent victims claimed over the past few decades by the Colombian conflict.
* * *
Since the various nations of Latin America achieved independence, the region has been the scene of an endless series of conflicts, inevitably reflected in its literature. Civil wars and foreign invasions, uprisings and attempted coups, revolutions and counterrevolutions followed one after the other on its soil until the final decades of the twentieth century, spawning a prodigious list of novels and stories. On this tumultuous stage, Colombia lived through a long period of instability that—uniquely on the continent—has yet to draw to a close. It’s no coincidence that, in describing the bloody battles between the Liberal and Conservative parties in the 1940s and ’50s, Colombians coined the term “La Violencia,” nor that the culminating work of Colombian literature and of Latin American literature overall, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), should be a fantastical retelling of the succession of social explosions that the country has endured.
Since the middle of the past century, Colombia has lived through a new “perfect storm” of violence (though now absent the moniker); in addition to the surge of different Marxist-inspired guerrilla movements came the rise of the drug trade—with emblematic figures like Pablo Escobar and José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha (“El Mexicano”)—and the rise of the paramilitaries. The combined activity of these groups, in tandem with the low quality of life in cities like Medellín and Cali, accounts for the emergence of the sicarios: kids from the poorer neighborhoods of these cities who are hired by rival gangs to commit their crimes. (Sicarios is a surprisingly elegant term derived from sica, the Latin word for “dagger.”)
As Alonso Salazar J. wrote in No nacimos pa’ semilla: La cultura de las bandas juveniles de Medellín (We Weren’t Born to Be Seeds: The Culture of Youth Gangs in Medellín), published in 1990:
the country is in the grips of a surprising phenomenon: young people who are prepared to die, like Islamic fundamentalists or Japanese kamikazes. With the significant difference that these prospective suicide victims are not motivated by any clear political, ideological, or religious ideal.
Not only are they prepared to die in dramatic acts; their daily lives are suffused with death. When a young person attaches himself to a sicariato, he knows that his life will be short. Many provide advance instructions for their own funerals. The truth is that they fear prison more than death.
Beginning in the 1980s, Colombian novelists became increasingly interested in the subculture of narcos and sicarios. A pioneering work, Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal’s El Divino (1985), was joined by two important novels: Laura Restrepo’s Leopard in the Sun (1993) and, above all, Fernando Vallejo’s Our Lady of the Assassins (1994). Focusing on the bleak lives of the young gunmen of Medellín, Vallejo’s novel pointed the way for subsequent generations of writers, who came to favor characters motivated only by resentment or inertia; the reproduction—or, as in this case, the reinvention—of the speech of criminals; and a style of such terseness and remove that it accentuates the meaninglessness of the characters’ lives. Soon afterward, Jorge Franco rounded out the conventions of the genre in his novel Rosario Tijeras (1999) by bringing a female figure into a world until then ruled by men. Both novels were made into movies: Our Lady of the Assassins by the Franco-Swiss director Barbet Schroeder in 2000, and Rosario Tijeras by the Mexican director Emilio Maillé in 2005.
As the violence of the drug trade spread to other Latin American cities, local writers were keen to absorb its telltale characteristics into their fiction. In an age dominated by a distrust of politics, an almost mythical aura came to surround powerful outlaw forces: the poor adolescents recruited by gangs; the beautiful girls used as tokens of exchange; the gunmen at war with each other, driven solely by existential emptiness; the pathetic heroes and villains, often interchangeable; a universe ruled by danger, unpredictability and death; clueless, underpaid policemen, always corrupt; and, of course, a few multimillionaire crime bosses capable of the worst atrocities.
All these elements gave rise to new novels of chivalry that blend the thriller and the soap opera, in which no one can say why he fights; in which, as the song goes, “life is worth nothing,” and acts of heroism are few and far between, and surviving past 40 is a victory in itself. This fledgling epic of narco life, with roots in the western and film noir and nods to everything from The Godfather to Pulp Fiction, has become an authentic subgenre in Colombia and Mexico and has already influenced writers in the international mainstream, like Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who portrayed a female drug boss in The Queen of the South (2002), or American novelist Don Winslow, who covered three decades of the drug war in Mexico in The Power of the Dog (2005).
In the view of some critics, the preeminence of the narco has supplanted magic realism as Latin American literature’s most striking feature at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Just when many writers thought they had broken free of the exoticism of children with actual pig’s tails and flying women à la García Márquez, the outlandish world of crime bosses and sicarios engulfed Latin America’s imagination, overshadowing other developments—such as the triumph of the left in a number of South American countries—that have nothing to do with it. Even so, it’s possible to single out a few works that avoid cliché and attempt to approach the phenomenon from a different perspective: The Armies (2009), El ruido de las cosas al caer (2011) and 35 muertos (2011) by, respectively, the Colombian writers Evelio Rosero, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Sergio Álvarez; or Kingdom Cons (2004) and The Black Minutes (2006) by, respectively, the Mexican writers Yuri Herrera and Martín Solares.
Because it is a memoir, and because of the seriousness and restraint of its tone, Oblivion can’t be considered a work of narco-literature. But when it was published in 2006, in a culture brimming with news articles about the violent crimes of the day, it was perceived as a necessary alternative—so much so that, since its release, it has become a bestselling work for its Colombian publisher, Planeta. At a moment when nearly every work of fiction turned its gaze on the brutal and crazed universe of the killers, Héctor Abad Faciolince’s paean to his father returned the victims to center stage.
* * *
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.