The old writer sitting on the patio of the boutique hotel reacted to the mention of the river with a depth of feeling I had not expected. He burst into a smile, his eyes glowed and he held tightly to my wrist without seeming to want to let go. He looked up at his brother, like a child asking for a favour, and suggested that I might be invited to their house, where he would love to talk to me at length about the Magdalena, the river of his life, the river that gave him the one reason for wanting to be young again. So that he could sail along it one more time.
He’s confused me, has Michael Jacobs. I read this and remember when I finished I wasn’t sure what to make of it, I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as I had hoped, couldn’t make up my mind about Jacobs, but for various reasons, I didn’t write up my review at the time.
However, then I read Ghost Train Through the Andes, and although it was slow, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and had warmed to Jacobs by the end, and said as much in my review (here). When I looked back on my shelf at the forlorn books waiting to be reviewed, I realised that this was the very same Michael Jacobs.
After a small meeting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez where he reveals an interest in the Magdalena, which causes the old writer to flare briefly like a firefly in the twilight, Jacobs travels up the great river, pondering on the power of memory, in a country that has has a tacit silence on the terror that has torn at it for decades, perhaps in an attempt to forget, as well as the more personal introspection of his mother’s heartbreaking decline into dementia and his fathers death following Alzheimer’s.
The journey up the Magdalena is slow, and winding and the lower part seems to take most of the book. Jacobs explores as much as he can including the fascinating yet sad story of the paisa strain of Alzheimers discovered in the Central Cordillera of the Andes, where twenty five families had been identified with it, all of whom descending from a single Basque who had settled there around 1750.
Inter-sped with memories of his father and mother, as Jacobs ponders on the effect of memory and life, he finally makes it to the source of the Magdalena, drinking and washing his face in it’s calm waters. It’s right in the middle of FARC territory and sure enough he crosses paths with the guerrillas. Alongside long tedious lectures on Marxism, they also show a side that seems to want to genuinely boost tourism in the area, despite forcibly detaining people to tell them this.
While celebrating carnival (he seems to always time his trips right for this) he learns that two days after he left the army went in to take control of the area, he had narrowly missed a gunfight.
It is a harrowing ending, set amongst the raucousness of carnival, but one that Jacobs captures almost perfectly, and is a poignant ending to what was, despite my misgivings, an interesting journey.
To the fear that had been mounting in me over the past hours was now added a feeling of experiencing an absurd dream. I had strolled into the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, witnessing a war that no longer made any sense, a war based on rapidly diminishing memories of how it had started, a war that was kept going almost mechanically, mindless of it’s shifting, ever more confused objectives.