Granta, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
The Robber of Memories, By Michael Jacobs
This meditative Colombian river trip is travel writing at its best
Saturday 24 November 2012
I t is impossible to write a book about Colombia, particularly the Magdalena river which runs to its heart, without invoking the presiding spirit of Gabriel García Márquez. It is the river Márquez uses at the end of Love in the Time of Cholera for what Michael Jacobs describes as "a meditation on the persistence of love", as the elderly protagonists make one final journey along its length. The river is so central to Colombian identity that Márquez entitled an essay "The Magdalena: the River of Our Life"; he himself travelled down it as a 15-year-old on one of the last paddle steamers.
By good fortune, Jacobs chances on the now frail Márquez in Cartagena before beginning his book and journey. "Gabo" has been suffering from memory loss for some time, but movingly asserts that he "remembers everything about the river, absolutely everything: the caimans, the manatees".
In following his famous predecessor up the Magdalena, Jacobs is not travelling light. The glamorous steamers have long gone, and he has a cumbersome journey on a tugboat pushing laden barges. At times they crawl to walking speed to negotiate shifting sandbanks; a sailor must call the mark by prodding the water with a pole, like the early Spanish explorers. While far improved from the dark days of last century's La Violencia, much of the interior of Colombia is still a security risk; armed soldiers travel on board.
Towards the source, FARC guerrillas appear with unsettling politeness and ask Jacobs if he is yet frightened; the inference is that he certainly should be. But most of all it is his own responsibilities to an ill mother back in England that weigh heavily: she too has a form of Alzheimers. His mobile phone brings news of her confusion and distress that haunt him with guilt and candid irritation.
While a concern with memory and forgetting are central to this fine book and his mood is often one of melancholy, it is by no means a gloomy read. A GP has given him "the only possible advice for someone witnessing the slow disappearance of a mind: to enjoy one's own life with added intensity". Jacobs's descriptions of the river are luminous: white cattle egrets flashing across the emerald-green witch ceibas, and the source like "a silvery offering in an eerily monochromatic world".
The gentle susurro of the river has a narcoleptic effect on the passengers as they travel past hamlets so small they no longer bother to learn their names. This was the lost world Márquez described in One Hundred Years of Solitude, where he fantasised that you might chance on a stranded Spanish galleon between Macondo and the sea: the gold-encrusted apparition became one of the defining images of magical realism.
Many Anglophone writers have tried to follow Márquez down the tightrope of magic-realist writing and tumbled clumsily into the netting. Jacobs avoids the obvious traps, and his gentle, discursive style is well suited to eliciting confidences. His previous outing, Andes, was an ambitious undertaking. The Robber of Memories – the title comes from Colombian folk legend – covers less ground but perhaps achieves more. Subtle and precise, it may well be Jacobs's finest work after a lifetime of studying the Hispanic world. This is travel writing at its best, with the memories a country creates about itself weaving with the author's for a journey that pulses with an elegiac, penumbral light.
There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turningTV
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rihanna 'nude photos' claims emerge on 4Chan as hacking scandal continues
- 2 Frank Lampard equalises for Manchester City against Chelsea: how the internet reacted
- 3 Stamford Hill council removes 'unacceptable' posters telling women which side of the road to walk down
- 4 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 5 Hitler’s former food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, review: Revolution still seems far off
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written
Friends 20th anniversary: The highs and lows of the cast's careers since TV series ended in 2004
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, ITV, review: There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning
Foo Fighters: 2015 tour dates announced for Sonic Highways
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God