Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hector Abad - Part II

Based just on a review of it, I raved about the book pictured on the left before I'd even read it. Now I've read it; it's a masterpiece of my favorite genre: the memoir.  Just a quick thought about what my favorite reads have been in, say, the last ten years: I would include near the top of the list Edward Said's Out of Place: A Memoir, from 1999; Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City from 2003; AndrĂ© Aciman's Out of Egypt, from 1995; and, from further back, 1987, V.S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival, which was published as a novel, and which I've read three times, but which reads absolutely as a memoir of the 2001 Nobel Prize winner's time living in a cottage on an estate in England; (not just any cottage; Naipaul's landlord was the extremely eccentric aristocrat, Stephen Tennant).

Onto that distinguished list I'll now add Oblivion: A Memoir by Hector Abad, the Columbian writer about whom I blog-posted on June 17th. I read it at night in bed. I carried it to Sam's Deli and read while having my regular egg, sausage, and cheese sandwich and coffee. I read it on my breaks at work; I read it during my half-hour lunch (one orange, regularly). Then, of course, I lamented the book's end coming so quickly. I've copied out some memorable passages; the first is in reference to his father having said to his son, as I reported in the June 17th piece, "Go to Mass so your mother doesn't worry, but it's all lies."

"At night I would repeat to my father what the nun had read to me in the afternoon, stories of the torture and sufferings of the saints, of terrible bonfires and violations of the flesh and severed breasts, and he would smile and say that, while it was true that the early Christian martyrs had suffered heroically, letting themselves be killed by the Romans to defend the cross and the idea of the one true God, and although it was, perhaps, admirable that they had borne so steadfastly martyrdom by fire, lions or swords, their heroism was no greater or more painful than that of the indigenous people of Latin America, who had themselves been martyred by Christians. The brutality and violence of Christians in Latin America was no less than that of the Romans against them in Old Europe: they had massacred indigenous people or fought against heretics and pagans with comparable savagery. In the name of the very same cross for which others had endured martyrdom, the Christian conquistadors had martyred other human beings and laid waste to temples, pyramids, and religions. They too had killed venerated gods, and made languages and entire peoples disappear, bent on eradicating the evil of communities with different, polytheistic faiths. And all this to impose, through hate, the supposed religion of love for one's neighbour, of a merciful God, and brotherhood among men. In this danse macabre, where the victims of the morning became the executioners of the evening, the rival horror stories cancelled each other out, and I trusted only, with the optimism my father passed on to me, that the period we lived in would be less barbaric, a new era -- almost two centuries after the French Revolution -- of true 'liberty, equality and fraternity', when all beliefs would be peacefully tolerated, without people being murdered for their differences."

And here Abad writes clearly but almost dispassionately about gross:

"And there was Tata too, of course, first my grandmother's nanny and then my mother's, who lived for six months in our house and six in Grandma's house, and who was completely deaf. She would say the rosary to her own rhythm, and while we intoned, 'Holy Mary, Mother of Go, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death, Amen,' she would tunelessly be chanting, 'Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb ...' Something awful happened to Tata, too, later on, after the best eye surgeon in Medelin, Dr. Alberto Llano, operated on her cataracts. Back then the operation was done with a scalpel rather than a laser and the wound was a large one, so she wasn't allowed to get out of bed or lift her head up for two months - two months of total stillness while my mother looked after her, washing her with a flannel. One morning, while my mother was helping her change her pyjamas, Tata raised her head, and as she did so her eye began to empty itself out. A gelatinous substance, like raw egg white, dripped from the socket, and my mother was left with a putrid-smelling jelly and Tata's eye in her hand (just as earlier my grandmother had held Uncle Luis' gangrenous big toe in hers). So Tata lost her sight forever in that eye, and with the other she could barely see a thing, only light and darkness, or very large objects, as shapes. She didn't dare have another operation to remove the cataracts from this remaining eye, and to communicate with her my mother bought a classroom-stye blackboard and some chalk, and anything you wanted to say to her you had to write on the board in immense letters.  Tata prayed and prayed constantly, because these were things sent by God to test us or to make us suffer here on Earth, in advance, some of the torments of Purgatory, so necessary to cleanse the soul before we could become worth of Heaven."

Abad's father was a doctor, but spent his working life as a Public Health Administrator, a crusader for a healthy environment - clean drinking water and such - rather than as a practicing family doctor or surgeon.  His son outlines at least one good reason for his father's career choice.  This was especially interesting to me as in the winter of 1972 I was visiting my Aunt Helen Luckenbill in Casa Grande, Arizona. I had to say good-bye to her in the local hospital as she'd gone in for a routine gall bladder removal.  The next thing I heard of her, when I'd got back to Michigan, was that Aunt Helen was dead; the doctor had made some sort of mistake similar to what Abad dramatizes below.  As for my Aunt Helen, something that particularly touched me in that event was that her three grown children (her husband, Robert, my mother's brother, was recently dead) did not even consider a malpractice suit against the doctor; he was, in their view, a good man -- more than that: an excellent man -- and cared lovingly for his Casa Grande patients, even those who were poor and could not pay him; and, being merely a human, could only be allowed (and forgiven) a grave slip of his scalpel.  "After all, he didn't do it on purpose," my cousin Barbara said.
A different edition's cover photo.

"My father never liked practicing medicine directly, and this went back, as far as I was able to reconstruct much later, to an early trauma he had experienced thanks to a professor of surgery at the university. This professor had asked him to remove a patient's gallbladder before he'd had enough experience, and during the cholecystectomy, a delicate operation, he'd damaged the patient's bile duct. This patient, a young man, around forty years old, had died a few days after the operation, and even when they closed him up it was already clear he would die shortly afterwards. My father was always very clumsy with his hands. He was too intellectual to be a doctor, and entirely lacked the butcher's skills needed by a surgeon. Even changing a lightbulb was extremely difficult for him, not to mention changing a tyre (he used to joke that when he got a flat, he had to stand and wait on the hard shoulder, like a woman, for a man to come and rescue him) or checking a carburetor (whatever that was) or extracting a gallbladder without touching the delicate tubes surrounding it.  He had no understanding of mechanics and, having learned to drive late, only knew how to operate an automatic car. All his life, every time he had to perform the heroic act of entering a roundabout in the midst of traffic, he did so with his eyes shut, and used to say, every time he got behind the wheel, that he felt 'deeply nostalgic for the bus'.  He wasn't agile or good at any sport, and he was completely useless in the kitchen, incapable of making himself a coffee or a boiled egg. He hated to run risks, and I was the only boy in the neighbourhood who rode a bike with a helmet (which he made me wear) and also the only one who couldn't climb trees, since my father would let me climb only the dwarf totumo tree in our front garden, and the biggest act of heroism I was allowed to attempt was to jump off the lowest branch, which was at most thirty centimetres off the ground."

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