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Born Unequal in Colombia

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Tolstoy’s famous observation—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—takes on new meaning in Héctor Abad’s Oblivion, the unsettling account of his father’s murder by Colombian paramilitaries in 1987. As readers, we know from the beginning of this wrenching story that Abad’s father is going to be killed, and yet there is so much beauty in this book, so much family love—particularly between Abad and his father—that the death foretold can easily be forgotten for much of the memoir.  And the family (the parents and their six children) is presented so unforgettably that, again, one understands that happy families are not all alike, even if the unhappiness, when it arrives, is obviously unique.

The author’s father, Héctor Abad Gómez, was a celebrated professor of medicine in Medellín who spent his weekends in the city, working among the poor, which made him a threat not only to many of his professional colleagues but to conservative priests and the city’s politicians who felt that he was stepping into their territory.  Gómez called himself a Christian, though he attended no religious services, a Marxist because of the abuses of capitalism, and a liberal in politics.  A defender of human rights, he had compassion for suffering, poverty, oppression, and injustice, and because he could not abide silence, he had an impressive career as a writer—often exposing the crimes of those in power.

Early in his career when he found himself in difficult situations, Gómez took positions overseas for international health organizations.  But as he grew older, he refused to seek the safety of exile and, dangerously, wrote op-ed pieces for Medellín newspapers, naming those who abused power: “He did not…denounce only the government and close his eyes to the atrocities of the guerrilla war.  [In] his articles and statements it is clear he detested the guerrillas’ kidnappings and indiscriminate attacks, and he strongly, even despairingly, denounced them too.  But he considered it more serious that the very State that claimed to respect the rule of law was engaged in fighting a dirty war—either directly or vicariously, by hiring thugs (paramilitaries and death squads) to fight on its behalf.”

During the dirty war, intellectuals (especially academics), students, and priests were brutally murdered or disappeared—something that went on for years.  Many of Gómez’s closest friends and colleagues were murdered, others fled into exile; fear and death threats were rampant, yet Abad’s father did not waver in his beliefs, especially his sympathies for the poor and the uneducated.  It is one of the supreme ironies of Oblivion that the afternoon of the day that Abad’s father was killed, he had written his last article (“Where Does the Violence Come From?”), intended for publication the following day.

In that essay he had written, “In Medellín there is so much poverty that you can hire a hit man to kill anyone for two thousand pesos.  We are living in a time of violence and this violence is born out of inequality.”   Chilling words for all of us worried about the increasing inequity in countries around the world.

And, yet, it is the love of a father for a son that transcends much of Abad’s memoir, at least the first half of the story.  Rarely has the love between a farther and his son been presented so powerfully—no Freud here—in the closeness of the two of them, possibly because (as Abad speculates) his five other siblings were girls.  “My father didn’t frighten me, but inspired trust; he wasn’t despotic, but tolerant; he didn’t make me feel week, but strong; he didn’t think me stupid, but brilliant”—all this when Abad was still a child.  His father, Abad relates, gave him a better education than the one he received at school; he taught him to be tolerant of others; he made into a liberal.

The family scenes of his mother and father are also loving; the closely-knit family (with five talented girls) sometimes appears to be bigger than life until one of the girls dies; even Abad’s relationship with his mother, a successful businesswoman, is positive and full of warmth.  This is a family that practices what it preaches, fully aware of their comfortable lives but concerned about the downcast and afflicted. Nowhere is that sense of inequality more obvious that in Dr. Gómez’s observations about children born in the Private Wing in San Vicente Hospital in Medellín and those born in the Charity Wing: “We have found that the average weight and height at birth is much greater (by a statistically significant degree) among those born in the private section than those in the charity section.  Which means that they are born unequal.  And not due to biological factors, but to social factors (the living conditions, unemployment and hunger of their parents.”)

No surprise that Héctor Abad Gómez was unpopular with other doctors (who wanted to earn high fees from rich patients), with priests and government officials (who thought that he should stick to his practice at the university and not worry about the great unwashed in the slums of Medellín).  In the lucid translation by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey, Oblivion is not solely about the tragedy of one particular family but Colombia’s ultra right government and the ways it decided to ignore the urgent needs of its masses.

Héctor Abad: Oblivion
Trans. by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., $26.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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