A generation later, Colombian author rescues murdered father from ‘oblivion’
By Juan Forero,
MEDELLIN, Colombia — Moments after assassins pumped six bullets into his father’s head and chest, Hector Abad Faciolince slumped next to the body on a downtown street, devastated but convinced he would one day pay homage to his life.
Thousands of mourners waving white handkerchiefs turned out for Hector Abad Gomez’s funeral, stunned by a senseless killing of a well-known doctor that seemed to signal Colombia’s descent into chaos in the 1980s. In a shadowy, drug-fueled conflict, many more would die at the hands of rogue military units, Marxist guerrillas, cocaine cartels and a right-wing paramilitary force whose hit men are believed to have killed Abad.
And the son, who was 28 at the time of his father’s death a quarter century ago Saturday, would become one of Colombia’s most accomplished novelists.
But in the years following the politically motivated slaying, the young writer struggled time and again to tell the most compelling story he knew. Now, after years of false starts, “Oblivion: A Memoir,” Abad’s passionate tribute to his father and a shattering chronicle of Colombia’s violence, has been published in the United States to strong critical reviews.
It is a memoir about a jovial father who was also a formidable intellectual, humanitarian doctor and political radical whose outspokenness about the injustices in this country triggered a murderous rage among reactionary forces.
“From the beginning, when I was seated in the pool of my father’s blood, I knew I had to tell that story, to write a book and tell the truth and not let the assassins impose their lies on us,” said Abad, now 53. “But for many years, the only thing that would happen when I wrote was I’d become shaken. So I’d write some pages, phrases and words that were simply overly emotional, very teary. That doesn’t work in literature.”
First published in Spanish in 2006, “Oblivion” does the unusual in what Abad calls “a country without memory” — recalling in loving detail a victim of the profound political violence that has been a scourge for decades.
“The book is a great journalistic work about a family, Hector’s family, but also a multi-layered look at the country and the violence we lived through in the ’80s,” said Luis Alberto Arango, a bookseller and friend of Abad’s. “It is done with tact, with distance, with the discretion that’s needed. Because it could have been a book distorted by rage, and that’s not what it is.”
Abad, who is also a newspaper columnist, said he has always been frustrated by the attention journalists, scriptwriters and novelists in Colombia have given to “evil figures.” He was referring to men like the flamboyant cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and the paramilitary commander Carlos Castaño, whose anti-guerrilla forces worked closely with military units to assassinate leftists.
“In this city, there have been victims who were victims not for all the evil things they had done, but for the exact opposite,” Abad said. “I wanted to leave that testimony.”
The author mines a rich subject: his father, who was a multifaceted and sometimes comically contradictory civic leader. As Abad writes in “Oblivion,” the elder Abad was a pioneer in public health but hated blood, pus, emissions “and everything that is inherent to the everyday practice of medicine.”
He could be naïve, having once been persuaded to join a friendship committee between the peoples of Colombia and North Korea. But he was also dismayed by the attacks on individual freedom in communist countries and detested the armed struggle of Colombia’s guerrillas.
“Oblivion” recalls a man who cultivated roses and friendships and instilled the importance of tolerance, affection and compassion in his children, though the Medellin of their youth was a place “devoid of all softness,” as the author put it.
Bald and imposing, with a pair of thick-framed glasses and a booming voice, Abad Gomez was an indulgent father — an “alcahueta,” or pushover — who heaped “deafening kisses and suffocating hugs” on his five daughters and only son.
In return, the younger Abad recalled feeling “an animal love” for his father. “I felt for my father the same way my friends said they felt about their mothers,” he wrote.
As a prominent professor of medicine and activist doctor, Abad’s father was also a relentless advocate for vaccinations and safe drinking water in Medellin’s slums. When Colombia began its slide into a perpetual state of violence, his crusade shifted toward leading protest marches and denouncing politically motivated killings and disappearances in pointed letters to military commanders and government officials.
That’s when some in the establishment began to talk about the dangers posed by “the communist doctor.”
A list of people threatened with death soon surfaced in Medellin. The doctor’s name was included. The list’s authors accused him of being a “medic to guerrillas, false democrat, dangerous due to popular sympathy.”
“I am very satisfied with my life, and I don’t fear death,” he said in an interview at the time, as recounted in “Oblivion.” But he then quickly added: “A violent death must be terrifying. I wouldn’t like it at all.”
Still, as Hector Abad recalled those tense days during a recent tour of his father’s old haunts, it appeared that Dr. Abad very well knew he would be murdered.
On Aug. 25, 1987, gunmen on a motorcycle tracked down Dr. Abad on busy Argentina Street, quickly shooting him dead and riding off. Abad rushed to the scene and remembers howling with grief and kissing his father’s cheek, which was still warm.
He also found two documents in his father’s pockets, the death list that included his name and a sonnet by Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer and poet.
“Already we are the oblivion that we shall be,” Borges’s epitaph goes, “the elemental dust that does not know us, the dust that once was red Adam and now is all men, the dust we shall not see.”
After fleeing to Europe, repulsed by his own country, Abad returned and began to write prolifically, producing everything from humor to eroticism to intricately staged novels. He said that is how he prepared himself for what would become his most important, personal work.
With his memoir, Abad said he believes he is also doing something his father would have wanted, rescuing his memory from oblivion.
“I put my faith in the words that he had taught me to use, words and the truth,” Abad said. “And I think it was worth it to come home.”