Oblivion: A Memoir – Hector Abad

Once my sister Vicky, who moved in the highest and richest circles of the city, said to my father, ‘Daddy, people don’t love you in Medellin’ and he answered, ‘Darling, there are lots of people who love me, but you won’t find them in your circle of friends, they’re in a different place, and one day I’ll take you to meet them’.  Vicky says that on the day of the procession that accompanied my fathers funeral through the centre of town, with thousands of people waving white handkerchiefs as they marched, and from windows, and in the cemetery, she suddenly understood at that moment that my father was taking her to meet  people who loved him.

When I reached the point of the book where Hector Abad describes the murder of his father (also Hector Abad) I was reading in a pub.  I put the book down and looked up, tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.  The few people scattered around paid no attention to me, continued on with their conversations, were oblivious to what had just happened in front of me.  I re-read the following pages over and over again, not taking anything in.

Even though you know it’s coming, it’s a raw moment when it happens. I pictured Hector Abad standing up and walking away from his computer or pen and paper, gathering himself together, trudging back to add a few more lines before walking away again.  The sheer eloquence and thoughtfulness of this memoir belies a courage that Abad possibly didn’t realise he had.

When he was younger he seems to have tried to live up to impossible expectations that thought his father had for him. The inexplicable desire for the big red book of sports rules was to me a natural aspect of childhood, those fierce desires from who knows where, but Abad thinks only of how he let his father down.
The memoir has moments of wry humour, particularly where religion is involved, his rejection of the backwards Catholicism of his region of Colombia, fostered by his more progressive father, while at the same time he acknowledges the impact it has on the family through his mother.  This is perhaps at it’s most sharpest when his sister Marta dies, as Abad puts it, the watershed moment of the family’s life.  The strength of the bond of the family is tested to it’s limit through this and yet it is external events that tear into the family later on.

The horrific collapse into brutal violence in Medellin, as well as Colombia as a whole is a shadow that expands over the pages, culminating in a senseless and tragic ending for a man who spent his life working to help people less fortunate than himself, supported by his incredible wife, who built up a business to allow him to do what he wanted without worrying about supporting the family.

At the end of the book, Hector Abad, makes a speech in which he admits he doesn’t think he is the man his father was, yet his father loved him unconditionally and supported him right to the end of his life.
They idolised each other and this book is an intimate and poignant portrait of a family, a relationship and above all a father whose dedication to others did not detract from his devotion to his family and his son.  By the end I couldn’t decide if Abad was trying, finally, to emerge from his fathers shadow, or staying safely within it’s security.  Whichever it is, he should be proud that he has written such a powerful and eloquent book that has painted not only a moving portrait of his fathers’ strength and conviction, but of his own as well.

This struggle gives meaning to their lives.  Living is justified if the world is a little better when one dies, as a result of ones work and efforts.  To live simply for pleasure is a legitimate animal ambition.  But for humans, for Homo Sapiens, it is to be content with very little.


Night Train to Lisbon – Pascal Mercier

When I handed him the syringe, our eyes met for a split second.  How I loved him at that moment, my brother! With the enormous force of his inflexible iron will, he struggled against the wish to simply let the man on the examining table die, the man who almost certainly had the whole merciless oppression of the state on his conscience.

Since my trip to Portugal last year, Lisbon has never been far from my mind and to try and allay it’s constant pull I finally picked up Pascal Mercier’s the Night Train to Lisbon.
I sunk into it, enjoying the comfort of the simple, elegant prose.  I loved Mundus, his pragmatism in his routines, his thoughts about his own life and his ex wife and his fear, which he overcomes with understated strength to change his life.

A chance meeting with a Portuguese  lady on a bridge he crosses ever day on his way to work, knocks him out of orbit and wakes up in Mundus the realisation that he is inside a shell, made up of what other people have made him, and which he, unthinking and uncomprehending, allowed himself to become.
After inexplicably walking out of his lecture, Mundus comes across a book by Amadeu Prado, and feverishly translates pages of it.  The more he translates the more it seems the book is talking directly to him, and he leaves his solid dependable life, and embarks on a spontaneous trip to Lisbon to find out more about Prado, receiving only the approval of his optometrist, Constantine Dioxiades.

In Lisbon Mundus tracks down Prado’s relatives and friends and constructs the life of the man whose book, as it’s translated, reveals to Mundus so much about his own life.
Prado is a larger than life character, pulling and pushing people within his orbit as he tries to write himself clear of his demons.  Prado’s life is revealed, piece by piece by those who knew him, his adoring sister, his closest friend, his one true love, a comrade in the resistance and his former teacher.  His life is like a wave, leaving devastation imprinted in the people washed up in it’s wake.  His notes, which Mundus translates like a disciple, show a mind trying to dissect it’s existence to find clarity and peace.  His speech at the end of the time at the Liceu, is a perfect dissection on the word of God, written with absolute clarity and thought.

I read other reviews of this and people complained a lot about the grammar and translation.  Going back to the book I was surprised to see it for myself, whereas I had assumed I had misread sentences they were just wrong.  While you can skim the sentence and get it’s true meaning, it happens far too frequently, which is disappointing.

Fortunately for me this, in the end, didn’t detract from a wonderful story about facing an inner battle, to change your life in an instant, to throw away everything you hold dear, that keeps you secure and comforted.
It is the anxious, nervous excitement before you travel.  Mundus is me, but I am starting ahead of him, I want to escape before my shell is formed.

And all of a sudden, he understood: what had started as the temptation to hold onto something familiar after the last houses of Bern slipped away, had become more like a farewell as the hours passed.

The Tao of Travel – Paul Theroux

After he wrote The Fearful Void, he told an English interviewer from the Guardian, “Doing this journey was a piece of propaganda in a way.  It seems to me that every writer’s a propagandist, in that he’s trying to advance a point of view he believes, and my point of view is that we’re all essentially like each other.  We all suffer the same things, we all laugh at the same things, and we all have to recognise this interdependence.
Geoffrey Moorhouse – The Fearful Void (1974)

It has the right ingredients, writers and their travels, complied by a writer who has travelled and written about it for a good portion of his life, the mixing was thorough, sections such as The Pleasures of Railways, Travellers who never went alone to Imaginary Journeys and Travellers Bliss, with nuggets of travel wisdom from luminaries such as Evelyn Waugh, Freya Stark and Samuel Johnson sprinkled in.  But in the end it didn’t turn out to be quite as enjoyable as I hoped.

I think Theroux is a great travel writer and this book promised to be an insight into his inspirations and also the rich vein of travel writing which he has become a contemporary part of, but it just didn’t interest or inspire as much as I hoped it would.  There are parts of interest throughout and the books strength comes in it’s highlighting new writers to read about, or giving you a taste of writers who you may have wondered about but not actually read.

I agreed with all but one of Theroux’s essential Tao of Travel points and maybe I was expecting too much, but it felt too much like a reference book at the end, something to dip into, but not to read on a long train journey to destinations far flung.

Modern education ignores the need for solitude: hence a decline in religion, in poetry, in all the deeper affections of the spirit: a disease to be doing something always, as if one could never sit quietly and let the puppet show unroll itself before one: an inability to lose oneself in mystery and wonder while, like a wave lifting us into new seas, the history of the world develops around us.
Freya Stark – The Valleys of the Assasins