Hector Abad On “Oblivion: A Memoir,” a Memorial to His Murdered Father

The Colombian novelist talks to Maya Jaggi about his father’s murder and the book as memorial.

04.27.12 9:14 PM ET

In a freshly-dug memorial garden in Medellín’s sub-tropical valley, Héctor Abad Faciolince, one of Colombia’s leading novelists, searches for a plaque bearing his murdered father’s name. Dr Abad Gmez was gunned down by paramilitaries in a Medellín street 25 years ago, after finding himself on a death list in the country’s escalating dirty war.

The Jardín Para No Olvidar, or “Garden Against Forgetting”, is being planted in memory of the physician and other victims of South America’s longest running civil war. It forms part of the House of Memory, a new civic museum taking shape in an imposing modern building in Colombia’s second city, for which Abad campaigned. Yet as we tour the construction site in hard hats, he feels that his own memorial to his slain father is already complete. 

Oblivion: A Memoir is being published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in the US on May 1, in an English translation by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey. When it came out in Spanish in 2006, it became Colombia’s bestselling book, and stayed in the top 10 for more than two years. “We have so many victims without a voice,” Abad says in a recent interview in the cozily cramped bookstore in downtown Medellín that he co-owns with friends. “I had so many letters—about people shot by rightwing paramilitaries or kidnapped by leftwing guerrillas; some killed by the government or by criminals. But the families’ stories are so similar.”

Abad, aged 53, has a gentle presence and a cherubic smile. He was 28, and had just returned from starting a family in Italy, when his father was shot dead in August 1987. He returned to Italy for fear of his own life, before settling here again in the early 1990s. The memoir, he says, was the only one of his books he had to write, and it took almost 20 years. “To keep living you have to forget. At the same time, you have to remember, but that was so painful.” He waited till the pages were not “humid with tears”, then “tried every year,” experimenting with fiction, before fixing on memoir written in the “the language of a child, and the simple way we speak at home.” His mother and four sisters “completed my memory and helped me finish the book.”

One motive was to counter a “fashion for books by killers, or sicarios,” he says, citing memoirs by Carlos Castaño, a paramilitary leader of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, or “narcos” linked to the Medellín drug boss Pablo Escobar. Many were flagrantly unrepentent. “In Spain they have picaresque; in Colombia we have sicaresque. I found victims like my father were being forgotten.” He also wanted his son and daughter to understand that their grandfather was innocent, and “how beautiful his life was.”

Oblivion: A Memoir, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 272 pages.

Dr. Abad was in a line of physicians who fall to the plagues they combat. A professor and public health pioneer, he led campaigns for immunization and clean drinking water, and was a “close reader of statistics. He found that in the 1980s violence had become the first cause of death in Colombia. He thought it was an epidemic we had to fight like a social disease,” says Abad. Since many deaths were linked to government forces, the doctor dedicated himself to human rights, “so the paramilitaries and government saw him as a dangerous communist.” Though a pacifist and Liberal party mayoral candidate, he was smeared as a “medic to guerrillas.”

Although the younger Abad went to a private Catholic school, his father took him into the poorest barrios. “He wanted me to see with my own eyes: children my age, thin because of hunger. The tendency of the Medellín upper class is not to look, to enjoy your privileges. To my father, that was offensive.” He is grateful, too, to have been brought up without machismo, in a society where conflicts are often solved with weapons. He dedicated his book Recipes for Sad Women (also published in English translation this month by Pushkin press in the UK) to his “five sisters or six mothers”. When you’re surrounded by women, “you understand that being macho, or using the privilege of males, is ridiculous.”

Abad’s sister Marta died from skin cancer in childhood, and that may have shaped his father’s fearlessness. “The world had no logic left,” Abad says. “Your capacity for self-sacrifice grows when you feel unbearable pain.” The book also hints at his father’s hidden bisexuality. “My father loved beauty in all its forms, and lived his life in an aesthetic way. It wasn’t ugly.” In a conservative society, “it was important to show that something often associated with scandal or regret could be part of a happy life.”

No one was brought to justice for the murder. A prosecutor who read the book wanted to reopen the case. “But she wanted more facts, and we don’t have any.” Some of the paramilitaries,who were demobilized after a 2005 deal struck by the former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe (a son of Medellín who briefly wooed one of Abad’s sisters), confessed to other killings on the same day. “But not to my father’s. Probably they knew no one would believe he was involved with guerrillas or kidnappers.” Abad is frustrated that many chiefs were extradited to the U.S. for other crimes. “They put people in jail for more time for cocaine trafficking than for killing.” Other paramilitaries are dead. When Castaño’s corpse was found with a hole in the skull, “he was in the process of a religious conversion, and was going to incriminate everybody. He was a very dangerous man, so they killed him. It was a pity, because he had stories to tell.”

The book is partly an attempt to “break a tradition of vendetta, and replace weapons with words. The real vengeance is truth,” Abad says. He felt a “calm satisfaction – that if I write the truth, with the mot juste, then the book will live for longer than the killers.”

His father coined the word “poliatrist”, meaning a healer of the polis or city. His legacy lives on. By way of an obituary, a mathematics professor wrote about Dr. Abad’s ideas on public health and education in a newspaper. The mathematician, Sergio Fajardo, went on to become city mayor from 2004-07, and the chief architect of Medellín’s transformation from one of the world’s most violent cities. The annual murder rate was slashed from 7,500 in the late 1990s, to 750 when he left office. Fajardo “used the same methods and the same approach as my father,” Abad says. “It worked—not perfectly, but it did.” Last year Fajardo won a landslide as governor of Antioquía—the state of which Medellín is capital. In his inaugural speech, he paid homage to Dr. Abad, pledging to provide clean drinking water for everyone in the state. “He remembered my father’s dream,” Abad says. “It’s such common sense.”

The memorial garden is a small version of Abad’s own dream, of a “green space of silence and beauty, a contemplative park” as a “monument to victims, to repudiate all violence.” He had kept a blood-stained shirt of his father’s, as a remembrance, he says. But once the memoir was written, he was able to burn it. “All my memories,” he says, “are in the book. It’s enough.”