In the opening pages of Héctor Abad’s memoir Oblivion we meet Abad’s father, Héctor Abad Gómez. He is a warm man, affectionate. Perhaps a little too so—when he hugs him in front of his friends it’s so very embarrassing.
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A few chapters later we’re reintroduced to the man as husband and family man, and then a little later, as professor and doctor. As the pages turn, Héctor Jr. grows and so does his awareness of Héctor Sr., and the son can see his father not only in relation to himself, but also to the rest of the world.
It’s the rest of the world where his father gets into trouble. A surgeon too squeamish for surgery, he focuses on preventive health instead. Héctor Sr. campaigns for things like clean water and alleviating the devastating poverty he sees on the job, leading him to revelations about the corruption of the Colombian government, and he refuses to back down. His criticisms of the powers that be eventually get him assassinated in the streets of Medellín in 1987.
Abad’s memoir of his father is fierce and tender, a book that starts off maybe a little too sweetly, but soon the dread of the inevitable climax begins to build. I spoke with Abad about his family and the impossibility of a son truly knowing his father.
You mention at a few points your father's machismo, and his perhaps unfair treatment of your sisters. I'm wondering how the book would be different if one of your sisters had written it instead. Does their view of him compare to your own?
We were many children, and every person is a distinct world. The answer will depend on which of my sisters you ask.
If you ask the oldest of them, she thinks that my father didn’t have a grain of sand of machismo. She also thinks that in my book I forget to mention a thousand aspects of his life that could depict my father as an even better person. If you ask the third of my sisters, maybe she will tell you that when she was born my father felt disappointed because he had hoped to have a male son. And that she felt that for many years. If you ask the last of my sisters, as she is also a medical doctor, probably she will describe my father from the point of view of a great professor in medicine, who brought her to lessons in jail where she learnt more medicine than in all her visits to hospitals.
Anyway all my sisters have different professions, and they don’t write books as I do. What I did to include their point of view was that I asked them for many small details that their memory retains much better than mine. And when I gave them the manuscript of the book, they helped me to complete the whole story with many more anecdotes.
I noticed your mother is portrayed somewhat more coolly than your father. You wrote that she responded to your father's enchantment with you by lavishing her attention on your sisters, and there are a few moments I thought I could tell that affected the way you wrote about her. Did you notice an imbalance while you were writing?
I find that the imbalance is real and normal. But as it happens many times in the real world, it was my mother who had her foot well planted on earth. Without my mother’s help, without her enthusiasm and her working capacities, even without her ability to produce money, my father would have failed in all his dreams. She was, and still is, the practical person in the family. Now she is 87, and she is the person who pays my bills, writes my bank checks, helps me with domestic reparations, etc.
There was some animosity in Oblivion toward the religious. There was even some sarcasm used when talking about believers. Did you worry that such a tone might anger some of your readers?
I am a nonbeliever, and I don’t think we should take religion questions as if everything related to them were sacred or untouchable. I think we have the right to defy religion truths. Religion has produced great things, like Bach’s music, European visual arts and cathedrals, and important open-minded leaders like some fathers of the American Constitution.
But religion has also produced awful things like the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno and millions of heretics and supposed witches, like the sexophobia, the religious wars and the painful fear in nonexisting entities like phantoms, the bad or good angels and hell. I suppose a bigot wouldn’t like my book. You can put a warning in front of it: not recommended for religious bigots.
The structure of your book kind of spirals outward from the intimate scenes between just the two of you in the beginning, to encompassing your family, to your father's political work. Was that because that's how you, as his child, grew in awareness of who your father was?
I decided to write this book in the simplest way I could, in a chronological order, beginning with my childhood and my very first memories of my father. I decided to write it in the simplest language I could use, the Colombian Spanish we used to talk at home, a family language. I decided, after trying to put the story in fiction in a novel, to say only the truth, not changing even a single name or a single event.
I knew my father very well or at least as well as a son can…but I didn’t want to discover anything secret in his life. The revelation of my writing, and more important, the response of many readers, was that the beloved figure that I have of him, could be transmitted to other minds and communicated across different cultures.
Do you know what it was in your father's life that sparked such a political viewpoint? You write about his passions, but it left me wondering what was the initial impetus that gave him such conviction, so that even when his life was at stake he kept bravely moving forward.
He used to say that it was compassion. The compassion he felt for a fellow student, his classmate in the Medical School in Medellin, who died of typhus in 1946 just because we didn’t have clean water in the city, because of political indifference and corruption. He began his fight for a very simple reason—clean water supply, an aqueduct.
And then he saw violence as the first cause of suffering in my country, and he began fighting against violence with a weapon as simple as clean water—elementary human rights, in the spirit of French and American revolutions, in the spirit of the Enlightenment.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.