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Oblivion: A Memoir, By Hector Abad, trans. Anne McLean & Rosalind Harvey

Reviewed,Michael Jacobs
Friday 12 November 2010 01:00 GMT

On 25 August 1987, shortly after 5.15 in the afternoon, a Colombian doctor, well-known for his enlightened teachings and public works, was assassinated by paramilitaries in Medellín. This compelling memoir of the man, written by his son Hector Abad, is a chronicle of a death foretold in which the frequent reminders of the father's eventual fate lend the narrative a near unbearable pathos.

Oblivion, the most eloquent homage a son could possibly pay to a father, is an expression of filial love so strong that the man seems almost physically present. Abad's father emerges as the ideal parent – unfailingly tolerant and supportive, generous in everything, and full always of humour, sound advice, and optimism. Abad's adoring account could easily have lapsed into both hagiography and sentimentality. But after several earlier attempts to write this brave book, Abad has been able to confront the deepest emotions with the lucidity and distance his well-read father had taught him to admire in other authors.

Had it not been for the tragic events that lift this book to another level, Oblivion would have been remarkable simply as a perceptive, witty and richly detailed portrait of an unusual family. Abad and his father were the only males in a household made up otherwise of ten women, including five sisters and a nun. Whereas his enlightened, fundamentally impractical and otherworldly father came from a long line of Liberals, his sensible and down-to-earth mother was from a Conservative and orthodox Catholic background. The two ended up perfectly complementing the other and forming the happiest of couples.

Structured almost as a musical composition, Oblivion unfolds as a series of contrasting moods and recurring themes building up to a grand finale. With the early death of the author's youngest sister, the sense of joy predominant in the first half is suddenly interrupted. The grief-stricken father becomes less concerned with personal safety as he pursues the cause of social equality in a Medellí* rapidly turning into a vision of hell. The writing becomes so vivid that the reader too is infected by all the rage and sadness running through later chapters. It is almost impossible to hold back tears as the father addresses his son for the final time, and goes off to meet the violent death he always feared.

Oblivion is fascinating as an insight into the age-old conflicts within Colombian society, and as a record of the madness that consumed the country in the 1980s and 1990s. But this book, excellently served by its translation by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean (who has done so much to promote Colombia's outstanding new generation of writers), is also a work of a much broader significance. Its cathartic last pages, with their profound reflections on death and oblivion, are a powerful reminder of how the recalling of a person is a way of bringing back to life, and of deferring for a "moment more" the void that awaits us all.

More than anything, Oblivion is an affirmation of an individual's struggle against the forces of unreason and terror. Though Abad's father was dismissed by his enemies as a "dangerous communist", he was in fact a pragmatist who belonged to no political party, and was driven instead by a belief in reason, and by a "desire to leave the world a slightly better place". His goodness, which his wife thought optimistically would protect him, has at least been preserved in this most deeply human of memoirs.

Michael Jacobs's latest book is 'Andes' (Granta)

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