:: Article

Beneath the Blue Indifference

By Max Dunbar.


Oblivion: A Memoir, Hector Abad Faciolince, Old Street 2010

No matter what your childhood was like, good or bad, your parents will always disillusion you, and I don’t use the word in its conventional sense of posturing boredom, but in the sense of recognising parental power as illusory. As a child your parents seem immortal and all-powerful. They made you and can unmake you; they were there before you and will be there after. Martin Amis gives the hapless protagonist of The Information a weirdly perceptive son who tolerates his father’s half-arsed parenting because he realises ‘that adults, too, were small, and pushed and tugged by many forces.’ But as kids most of us don’t know this until we get older, and realise with a rush of fear and opportunity that our parents are just like us, might as well be us, winging it, making it up as we go along, that no one is driving this car, no one is flying this plane, the room at the top of the Tower is empty.

You get the impression from Hector Abad Faciolince’s brief and lovely portrait of paternity that he never experienced this recognition. No matter how much he tries to highlight the impracticality and naivety of Abad Gómez – he supported Soviet Communism until he went to the Soviet Union – the tone always dances just on the right side of lachrymose. Faciolince still reads his father’s letters at low moments and recalls, when the old man was away, sleeping in his father’s bed to draw comfort from the smell. Faciolince writes as an unusually perceptive child. His dad was murdered by government-affiliated paramilitaries in 1987 but Faciolince does not go into the politics of the crime. The family are pushed and tugged by great and unseen forces: first by fundamentalist Catholicism, then by fascism.

Faciolince paints a picture of an amazing and admirable man. As a doctor, Abad Gómez rejected the patch-and-mend mentality of his colleagues in favour of a pro-active approach that highlighted the route cause of disease: the lack of clean public water than in itself was a mere symptom of the savage inequality in Colombian society. ‘In the San Vicente Hospital,’ he wrote, ‘we have weighed and measured groups of children who were born in the Private Wing (for families who are able to pay for medical treatment) and those born in the Charity Wing (families who are able to pay very little or nothing at all for these services) and 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 that those in the charity section. Which means that they are born unequal. And not due to biological factors, but to social factors’.

We know that the social impacts on the biological – we know that the environment in early years can actually impact on the development of the brain – and Faciolince writes that what we learn in childhood shapes us forever, for good or bad. I’m not sure that this is true – I don’t really want it to be true – but it does explain why some people lead wretched and evil lives, and others spend their days on earth belonging to beliefs that don’t have much going for them. Abad senior sent his children to ultra-orthodox Catholic schools because the state schools were so poor, but in the evenings he would encourage the younger Abad to read philosophy and literature as a kind of inoculation against the useless dogma his son was ingesting each day at faith school. Faciolince claims to owe any success and good qualities to this armour of critical thinking.

The emerging impression is of a garrulous and generous man far ahead of his time who would put himself on the line, socially, financially and physically, for principle. Abad Gómez was happy to risk a top academic job in support of striking workers, to campaign for water purification although peers and authority frowned on it and, in the end, was murdered for a lifetime of campaigning for public health and social justice. Abad’s entry on the hit list read ‘Medic to guerillas, false democrat, dangerous due to popular sympathy in upcoming Medellín mayoral elections. Useful idiot of the Communist Party.’ After escaping to Madrid to avoid a similar fate, a fellow exile tells Faciolince that ‘Héctor Abad Gómez’s attachment to the highly humanist idea of the Liberal creed had made him flexible and tolerant when in Colombia there is no longer any room for anyone but fanatics.’ The falangist slogan Viva Muerte is often quoted in discussions on the Spanish Civil War, but many forget the other half of the Astray couplet that the exile repeats to Abad, which is ‘death to intelligence’. The spark that must be stamped on. As Orwell tells us, orthodoxy is not just zeal – it is unconsciousness.

Abad’s title was inspired by the Borges poem ‘Epitaph’: ‘Already we are the oblivion we shall be – the elemental dust that does not know us’. During this last third his book becomes heavy and sensual with the inevitability of death. And yet the philosophy is not nihilistic. Borges encourages his reader to make the sacrifice of perspective and ameliorate the world for generations to come. Like Borges, Abad Gómez was not ‘some fool who clings to the magical sound of his own name… I think, with hope,’ the poet continues, ‘of that man who will never know I walked the earth. Beneath the blue indifference of heaven, I find this thought consoling.’


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 25th, 2010.