Sunday, June 23, 2013

What Love Is....

Oblivion, by Hector Abad

"These letters [from his father], and the memory of hundreds and hundreds of conversations I had with him, have helped me realize that, through we are not born good, if someone tolerates and directs our innate meanness, we may be guided down less harmful channels, or even led to change direction altogether. We don't have to learn to take revenge (we are born with vengeful feelings), but not to take revenge.  We must be taught not so much to be good, as not to be bad.  I have never felt like a good person, but I think that, thanks to father's influence, I have sometimes manged to be a nonpracticing bad man, a coward who with effort overcomes his cowardice and a miser who controls his avarice.  Most importantly, if there is any happiness in my life, if I am at all grown up, if most of the time I behave in decent and more or less normal fashion, if I'm not antisocial and have peacefully endured attacks and hardships, I believe it is simply because my father loved me just as I was, an amorphous bundle of good and bad feelings, and showed me how to get the best from this bad human nature, which perhaps we all share.  And although I don't always achieve it, in his memory I almost always try to be less bad than I am prompted to be by my natural inclinations."

This is great writing. Hector Abad made me weep: with pleasure at his words, in sadness at the story he tells.  

Abad's father, Hector Abad Gomez, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Columbia, much beloved by his son Hector, a devout but broadminded Catholic, political liberal, champion of the poor, was murdered by  Colombian paramilitaries for his defense of the powerless, for defying the conservative rectors of the university and the leaders of the Catholic Church, for speaking out against the crime of allowing landless peasants to be treated as slaves--in other words, for arguing against the usual litany of offenses that, in Latin America, from Guatemala to Chile,  brought death at the hands of (all too often) U.S.-backed fascist governments.  It is wearying to rehearse these facts, to notice how often we Americans have been on the wrong side, how often--in the name of freedom--decent people have been murdered. The  Times reviewer of this memoir appears to object to the "hagiography" of Abad's portrait of his father--surely no one could be so good, so selfless.  But doesn't the reviewer's comment miss the point?  In the eyes of his son, Hector Abad Gomez was a saint; nowhere in the memoir does Abad pere claim to be other than what he was--an ordinary man attempting to live his ideals.  In fact, as the passage above shows, both father and son shared the Augustinian belief in original sin, the belief in human imperfection that Machiavelli transformed into a theory of government.  Political realism, leavened by modesty and the conviction that the Gospels teach compassion, led Abad's father to risk his life--to lose his life--for justice. Perhaps, though I doubt it, this memoir is exaggerated, but that would hardly matter--men like Hector Abad Gomez do exist, and the recognition of the possibility of decency and courage might give us hope.  Oblivion is sad enough to make you cry, but is also uplifting.

At a certain point in his career, when Abad's father was agitating for the rights of landless peasants and on behalf of barrio dwellers without clean drinking water, young Hector's father would be forced to take a leave of absence from his university post--the rector of the Jesuit university, and almost everyone else, saw him as a troublemaker and was glad to see him go.  For six months or more Hector junior would be alone with the many women in his family (five girls; he was the only boy) trapped within their devout form of Catholicism.  Having been brought up as a Catholic myself, I laughed ruefully at Abad's descriptions of the intervals of his life he spent with the pious maternal side of family:

"There was Maria Castro, who'd been consumptive and had been left with a dry, muted, permanent cough and quick, anxious breathing, and who also had one cloudy, bluish-grey eye, because once while embroidering a chasuble she had priced her retina with a needle, and had lost her sight in that eye--that was how God had repaid her for doing charitable work for poor priests."

Indeed, God leaves no good deed unpunished.  God treats all of the Abads punitively, especially, of course, the liberal and therefore Godless father.  I was deeply moved by Abad junior's accounts of his father's courage in the face of persecution--from his university colleagues, from the Catholic Church (mostly on the side of the powerful in Latin America), from the many priests and nuns within his own family.  There is an especially engrossing part of this memoir that describes how Abad's father stood up for his civil rights against the  red-baiting accusations of the university faculty.  His defense of his freedom of speech and action was especially courageous since talk of civil rights in Latin America during the '80's was usually construed as subversive and used to  defend, in the name of anti-Communism, the destruction those who dared to exercise those rights.  Chastised for his work in bringing to the attention of the university the plight of Colombian agricultural workers, Abad Gomez responded to the University rector in this manner, thereby, in a sense, sealing his doom:

 "Sir: I must make it clear to you, with all due respect, that I have never understood my professorial position as requiring the renunciation of my civil rights or the free expression of my ideas and opinions as I see fit."

Nowadays the "free expression of opinions"--at least in our own country--isn't met with death at the hands of fascist paramilitary troops, but there is a price to be paid, and we are seeing it paid now, by those who demonstrate or speak out against the expanding power of the government. Hector Abad Gomez did not go willingly to his death; indeed, he wished not to be a martyr; nonetheless he was willing to sacrifice his job and his status, and, one must believe, his life, for the abstraction that we call justice. Dying for an idea; dying for people you don't even know--to render that kind of courage and sacrifice without melodrama or bathos is a rare literary feat.  I admire Abad's cool analysis of Columbia's political situation, his ironic and deft handling of the hypocrisy of the institutions of his country in the 1980's, his unwillingness to put his beloved father into the camp of leftist martyrs; on the contrary, Hector Abad Gomez emerges from Oblivion as a voice of moderation between extremes.

But mostly what I admired about this book was the author's honest--heartbreaking--exploration of the meaning of paternal love--not at all a common topic in contemporary fiction. What does it mean for a boy or a man to love his father and for a father to love his son? What can a father mean to his son, and how can his example shape the life of his child?  Hector Abad Gomez, teacher, doctor, defender of the poor, victim of a murderous regime, expressed his love for his son in the simplest way possible: he opened his heart unconditionally to him.  Sounds easy I suppose--it's not.

"I loved my father with an animal love. I liked his smell and also the memory of his smell on the bed when he was away on a trip. . . I liked his voice, I liked his hands, his immaculate clothes and the meticulous cleanliness of his body. I felt for my father the same way my friends said they felt about their mothers. When I was afraid during the night, I would go to his bed and he would always make a space for me at his side to lie down. He never said no to me... I inhaled my father's scent, put my arm around him, stuck my thumb in my mouth, and slept soundly until the sound of horses' hoofs and the jangling of the milk cart announced the dawn."

Hector Abad, born in 1958, has lived abroad for much of his adult life, translating Italian literature--Calvino, Eco, Levi, Lampedusa and others into Spanish.  He has lectured widely in the United States and is the author of, by my count, eight novels that have been translated into English.  If you read Spanish, there is a nice interview here

Oblivion has been beautifully translated by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey and is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

George Ovitt (6/23/13)

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