In El olvido que seremos, Héctor Abad Faciolince implores a desensitised Colombia not to forget its dead
El olvido que seremos
Héctor Abad Faciolince
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
VIOLENCE has almost become such a cliché when referring to Colombia that observers sitting comfortably outside the country are, unlike the victims themselves, constantly at risk of becoming inured to its shattering consequences.
It takes a novel like Héctor Abad’s bestselling El olvido que seremos to remind us that, when someone’s life is cut short, something that helps to sustain our lives is also taken away, thereby making such a crime all the more unforgivable – love.
As an exploration of the love between a father and his children, this novel by one of Latin America’s most talented post-boom writers represents a triumph of spirit. It took Abad 20 years to complete his cathartic elegy to his father and profile the circumstances of his assassination by paramilitaries in 1987 in a crime that shook the nation – a writing process that must have been deeply painful.
That he finished this story is worthy enough; that the result is a sensitive and illuminating, but in no sense clichéd, exploration of the candour that sustains the desire for justice is a noble testament to Héctor Abad Gómez, the murdered man, himself. It is the love of this physician and human rights activist for his fellow man, expressed through his paternal virtues, that compels us not to remain indifferent.
It is therefore no surprise that El olvido que seremos struck such a chord among Colombians themselves, and one might venture the gambit from the critical praise it has received that its author is in line for significant accolades outside the country.
But El olvido que seremos can be interpreted in a more nuanced sense as part of a genre of testimonial literature trying to come to terms with so many years of conflict by reinterpreting the causes and consequences of the violence. The dramatic image of Abad’s mother and sisters standing nervously at the foot of the corpse is, quite simply, one that has been repeated across generations. Recent such works that have made it into English include The Flight of the Condor: Stories of Violence and War from Colombia and Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, both of which put the social and individual effects of violence and its corrosive effects upon liberal humanists such as Abad Gómez under the microscope. This makes El olvido que seremos also a political novel, aiming to confront battle-scarred Colombians with the bitter truth about the world they have created for their children, and imploring them through its courageous honesty to reflect upon questions that have long since become rhetorical and to exhume a collective memory that has long been buried.
Human rights activist
Héctor Abad Gómez was an important figure in Colombia, a prominent public health official who pressed for an improvement in the conditions of the poor and greater equality, and a recognised human rights activist. A critic of the deeply conservative face of Colombia’s church, he was nonetheless no enemy of the Christian faith and was an advocate of tolerance whose wife was a Catholic. The author returns often to the theme of religion, and God, in his work – on the very first page of El olvido que seremos, he writes: “I, the son, loved the man, his father, more than anything else. I loved him more than God. One day I had to choose between God and my dad, and I chose my dad.” [p. 11]
It is worth remembering that the church hierarchy in Medellín reportedly refused to celebrate a funeral mass for Abad Gómez, given the offence his progressive views had caused them, and he was eventually laid to rest by a brave priest (his brother-in-law) acting unilaterally in a ceremony that many were fearful to attend.
Writing in December 2006, the journalist Germán Izquierdo Manrique noted that, at that funeral, the writer Manuel Majía Vallejo, one of Abad Goméz’s closest friends, captured in a brief eulogy the sense of fear and hopelessness that had Colombia in its grip:
“We live in a country that forgets its best features, its best impulses, where life will continue in its irreparable monotony, with its back turned to those things that give us a reason for being and to continue living. I know they will lament your absence and true grief will fill with tears the eyes of those who saw you and knew you. Later will come this tremendous blur, because we are fertile territory for forgetting what we love most. Life, here, is being converted into the worst horror. And this oblivion of forgetfulness will come and will be a monster that sweeps everything away, and not even your name will be remembered. I know that your death will be useless, and that your heroism will merely be added to those no longer here.”*
Izquierdo Manrique speculates that this may be why Héctor Abad Faciolince went on to reconstruct his father in such a painstaking and sensitive way – in an effort to turn back that monster of oblivion.