¨Inolvidable¨-unforgettable- is how I would describe this book by the Colombian author Hector Abad Faciolince. It is evident from the 25 editions of this book since its first edition in 2006.
Hector Abad is different from my other two favourite Colombian writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Laura Restrepo. While these two are the masters of magical realism, Hector Abad has moved the readers with his simple and plain realism. He does not take you through journeys of incredible imagination, flights of fantasies or magic carpets. He has just described the real life story of his father Hector Abad Gomez in a natural,clear and straightforward way. But the portrayal is poignant and powerful. This is because the fact is more striking than fiction; reality is more overpowering than the imagination.
Hector Abad has woven together three stories within this book: the story of Colombia; the relationship between an adoring and exemplary father and the pampered son ; and the story of the family.
Hector Abad Gomes, father of the author, taught medicine at the University of Antioquia in Medellin. But he went beyond the call of his profession and embarked on public health policy initiatives and campaigns. He established the faculty of public health in the University and connected the high brow medical students to the poor people in the slums. He was obsessed with the need for prevention of diseases through clean water, vaccination and other such measures. He wrote a number of books on public health besides his solid action on the ground. His compassion for the poor was misinterpreted as communism by his university colleagues and rightwing political elements who started persecuting him. He was caught in the ongoing violence unleashed against leftists all over Colombia by the security forces and militias, with the support of the oligarchy. Undaunted, he expanded his activism to defence of human rights and campaigns against violence. He wrote a book ¨Manual de tolerancia¨ and advocated the Gandhian method of non-violence and passive resistance. Many of his collaborators, liberals and leftists were systematically and ruthlessly killed and he was also marked in the death list. Inevitably, his day also came. He was gunned down when he went to pay homage to another colleague who was also assasinated. The son Hector Abad found in the trouser pocket of his dead father the list of people marked for death by the killers. The right wing bishop of Medellin did not allow funeral mass saying that Hector Gomes was a non believer and not a true christian. But lower level clergy defied the bishop and held a church ceremony. While browsing the papers left in his father´s office Hector came across the poem of Luis Borges, which starts with¨Ya somos el olvido que seremos¨. There is some controversy about the authorship of this poem. To me it does not matter. It is a beautiful line and fits in with the book.
The author has given a graphic description of the violence suffered by the Colombian society. The period 1948- 1960 is known as ¨Epoca de Violencia ¨– period of violence. The fight between the liberals and conservatives went beyond elections and power struggles and became bloody, leading to death and destruction. It engulfed the whole country with violence, terrorism and persecution. It drove writers and thinkers into exile. This got worse later with the rise of narcotrafficking and the war waged by left wing guerillas who controlled at one time half the territory of the country. The violence of the leftist guerillas were matched by the merciless killings by the paramilitaries on the other side. The innocent civilians were caught in the war between the two sides and the country paid a heavy price. It is now a great relief to see that Colombia is coming out of this terrible and unforgettable past.
The second thread in the story is about the extraordinary relationship between the father and the son. Hector Gomes showered his son with unconditional love and adoration. He always supported the son positively even when the son behaved in a cowardly way, did not live upto expectations and made mistakes. Hector Gomes let his son to be what he was and did not tell him what he should be. He introduced him to the world of poetry and literature and taught him lot of things through his long conversations and walks and travels together.
The other thread of the story is about the family. Hector Gomes lead a happy and contented middle class family of five daughters and a son with relatives and friends in many fields including in the church. He was an exemplary father, perfect husband and benefactor to others especially to the poor people. He was idealistic in his public life and was not practical in finance and other mundane family matters. This was taken care of by his level-headed and pragmatic wife who earned through her own business of management of buildings and ensured that there was no financial pressure on the idealistic husband. He confessed,¨I am a good father putting seeds of good ideas. But I am a bad mother because I do not have the patience to bear the seeds and nurture their growth¨. Everything went on smoothly and happily till Marta, the youngest, prettiest and the most gifted daughter who sang and played violin got cancer at the age of sixteen. She went through pain and died slowly with the whole family watching her deterioration day by day. The most poignant scene is the one in which she manages to sing and thereafter says that she might not sing again. She loses the voice and dies the next day. This unbearable death made Hector Gomes even more daring in courting his own death. He plunged himself into more activism with greater intensity risking his life willingly. He was not afraid of death after having lived ¨completely, intensly and suffciently¨.
By coincidence I finished this book on 24 March 2011, the Argentine National Day of Remembrance ( Dia Nacional de Memoria). It was on 24 march 1976 that the last time military came to power through a coup and took the country to hell with killings, tortures, disappearances and dropping of prisoners from the planes. Argentines cannot forget the famous reply of a general, ¨ They are not alive… nor dead… simply disappeared¨ when asked about people taken away for interrogation.
¨El Olvido ...no sera¨ is my conclusión. This book will not be forgotten. It will be catharsis for the Colombians for many years to come and also for other Latin Americans who have gone through similiar unforgettable sufferings.