Swans Commentary » swans.com May 6, 2013  



Hector Abad's Memoir: Oblivion
The Sentimental Brilliance of a Recollection


by Raju Peddada


To my Editors





"How many people can say they had the father they would wish for if they were born again? I can.
—Hector Abad, Oblivion: A Memoir, 2012


[Author's preface: What is a pothole? Let me explain -- aged-worn roads have potholes, and cars, long in their gears, would feel every pothole till they go into one, to never come out. We are cars in a way, and each death we encounter is a pothole that shakes us to the core till we hit that hole, whose depth we are unaware of, the death of a loved one -- the abyss, and never come out. We become damaged, despite our denials. Here's a classic memoir by someone who was and still remains broken. Like most of us with similar experiences, it took the author twenty years to resume himself after his dad's death, but his rage remains unabated.]


(Swans - May 6, 2013)   Wounds don't heal as quickly as we think, or are led to believe. "Move on" is what we hear frequently from others. It influences us, like a coating of Pepto-Bismol on our laceration, but it doesn't last long. Wounds fester, especially psychological wounds acquired in the loss of a loved one, no matter how many years pass. Higher intelligence, reason-cognition, and memory become a burden in the aftermath, as we deny everything and grope forward. The world obfuscates pain that becomes uncomfortable for sympathizers to handle, with self-serving clichés, denying us our own lachrymosity. Move on is a survival dogma that applies to our physical world -- our material obligations -- but to me, move on is cryptographically "move in," that we move the mourning, the pain, and the trauma inside of us so others could thankfully escape it, and get on with it. The wound is covered up, everything tucked in, so the gore is not inflicted on others. Moving on simply implies "Hey -- we can't mourn and share your pain forever... allow us to get on, and leave you to your misery."

I lost my father in 2007, five short years ago -- has it abated? Not if I am truthful with myself. I had promised myself to do his biography, as a matter of fact. Part I of the "Textures of India" trilogy, a journey to India in honor of my father's memory, has been finished, but I am unable to issue this photo-essay memoir yet, still in that inexplicable incarceration that rankles me relentlessly. It is not surprising to find that it took Hector Abad twenty years to wiggle himself free from his anguish, to attempt an unsentimental and objective memoir on his dad. Well, I am here to report that thankfully he failed to sound like every other memoir out there. This is a rare memoir, a masterpiece in the sentimental expose on his life with his dad and his family in Colombia, a country torn asunder by violence.

This is Abad's emotional as well as philosophical farewell to his father, but the subtext, underneath his poignant sentimentality, is a river of impotent rage and unmitigated frustration over the way his father had died. This memoir happens to be a subterranean and tacit commentary-tribute to all those who had dared to speak their mind: dissenters with integrity and gumption. There is no freedom of speech in countries like Colombia. It is incredible that in the 21st century, when we are exploring Mars, cloning life, and conducting remote-controlled surgeries on the human body, there is this global destitution of the freedom of speech -- from the largest countries of Asia, to the dysfunctional countries of Africa and South America. Abad, in so many ways, manages to paint his tropical milieu in primary colors, but he also splashed the images of archaic Catholic fervor and government death squads in deep red. In this 263-page memoir, there emerges a disturbing mosaic of people in Colombia during those tumultuous decades, whether poor or affluent and educated, of being ground like coffee between the violent political and drug-cartel forces, yet above this concealed fermentation, there floats the filial fragrance of that wondrous attachment between a son and his father. This is worship in many forms.

Allow me this simple query: Why should a memoir be unsentimental, dry, and not invested with sentimentality? It is a memoir -- onomatopoetic: memory + oir as in armoire, a place to store memories. And who says memories are objective -- they are only impressions of the events that shaped the life of the author. I think that shutting out sentiments, emotions, and feelings turns a memoir into a desiccated dissertation devoid of life's vitality. Who wants to read a dead memoir? The greatest memoirs are those where the passion for life is manifest in the expression, where painted memories become palpable and real for the reader. If it is done as it is felt it can be classic, like Elie Wiesel's "Night," or Isak Dinesen's "Out of Africa," or Rousseau's "Confessions."

Abad's memoir is double-barreled; he crafted an inlined adjuration to the forces of oblivion. It is powerful in its prose, piercing in its final eulogy to his father, yet underneath, between the lines, it is a direct and objective paroxysm at the world that has defaulted in the protection of our fundamental right that makes us civilized: The freedom of speech and press, especially for dissenters. I lingered in the memoir's resonance, in its cohesive message, and in its universal pathos. It also is a unique exposition of the craft itself. Here are some prose nuggets.

I think the only reason I have been able to keep writing all these years, and to commit my writings to print, is because I know my father, more than anyone, would have enjoyed reading these pages of mine that he never got to read, that he'll never read. It is one of the saddest paradoxes of my life: almost everything I've ever written has been for someone who cannot read me, and this book itself is nothing more than a letter to a shade.

My father was, and in a way continues to be, a constant presence in my life. I find myself obeying him even now -- though not always, for he also taught me how to disobey if necessary. When I am mulling over something I've done or am going to do, I try to imagine what my father would have said, and have resolved many moral dilemmas simply by appealing to the memory of his attitude to life, his example, and his words.

As though I were a character in a play dramatizing the quiet struggle for control of my soul, I'd pass from the gloomy theological caverns of the mornings to the enlightenment floodlights of the evenings. At the age when our firmest beliefs are formed, those that will probably go with us to the grave, I was lashed by contradictory gales. But all the while my true hero, secret and victorious, was the solitary nocturnal knight who with a teacher's patience and a father's love illuminated everything for me with the light of his intelligence.

The ghostly, obscurantist world of my days, full of otherworldly presences interceding for us before God, and with its idyllic or terrible or neutral afterlife, because by night, to my relief, a material world, more or less comprehensible by reason and science.

Philosophy they skipped lightly over Voltaire, D'Alembert and Diderot, I could always vaccinate myself in my father's study with small doses of the works of these very men, immunizing me against their destruction -- or else with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Darwin or Huxley. Against Leibniz and Saint Thomas' proofs of the existence of God there was the antibiotic of Kant or Hume (who strongly criticized miracles), the more accessible and playful Borges, and above all the refreshing clarity of the great Bertrand Russell, who was my father's philosophical idol, and the liberator of my young mind.

What I was looking for was this: that my deepest memories would awaken. And if my memories enter into harmony with some of yours, and if what I have felt (and will stop feeling) is understandable and can be identified with something that you feel or have felt, then forgotten as we shall be, in the fleeting spark of your neurons, thanks to the eyes, many or few, that might briefly pause over these words, the oblivion that awaits can be deferred a moment more.

The above paragraph sums it up aptly, except this: I see this wavering image of our collective selves as a white piece of burning paper -- life, held by a boy; our youth, between his thumb and the index finger, and see the flame travel up quickly, dropping the gray ash of our dissipating years, till the flame reaches his fingers after all is burnt, and he drops it...letting go of what is left, which is nothing. If we are afraid of being sentimental, then we have no business being alive. Read Hector Abad's searing memoir. You'll know what I am talking about.


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 6, 2013