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Abad's 'Oblivion' Puts A Face On Colombia's Dead

One of the rising stars in the Latin American literary world is Hector Abad. The Colombian-born author has released a searing book, Oblivion: A Memoir, in the U.S. that took him a generation to write. It's the story of his father, a beloved doctor who was murdered in the 1980s.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the next few minutes we'll revisit two dramatic but largely forgotten crimes. Later, a review of a documentary that explores how five young men could confess to and go to prison for a terrible crime they did not commit.

First, though, we go to Colombia. In a new book by one of Latin America's rising literary stars, it tells the story of his father, a beloved doctor who was murdered 25 years ago. That crime was never solved.

NPR's Juan Forero has the story from the author's hometown of Medellin.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: It's on busy Argentina Street, where Dr. Hector Abad, a prominent university professor and human rights campaigner, was killed 25 years ago.

Walking on the same street, his son, also named Hector Abad, recalls how he found his father minutes after gunmen had pumped him with six bullets.

HECTOR ABAD: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He was here on the ground with a bed sheet some neighbor had thrown over him, Abad says.

In those days, in the Medellin of cocaine cowboys and right-wing death squads, killings were commonplace - as is clear from old TV news clips.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: But Doctor Abad's death was somehow different, astonishing the country. He'd been an epidemiologist who fought for clean drinking water. And he was respected by the city's establishment. Now a more peaceful Colombia is embarking on peace talks with Communist guerrillas. And people are remembering the dead from decades of political violence.

Hector Abad's work, "Oblivion: A Memoir," puts a face on the dead, something that's rare in a country that's done little to recall the victims.

ABAD: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: The story is not just about him but represents the face of many victims of the conflict here, Abad says. Just as a great injustice was done against my father, the pain and tragedy has taken place many times over, against many innocent and brave people.

Abad's book has received favorable reviews in the Daily Beast, the Guardian, Kirkus, and the New York Times, which said it emits a primal yet articulate howl.

Abad, though, almost didn't write it, though he'd wanted to since the moment his father died.

ABAD: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: For many years I would come up with pages, phrases, words that were simply overly emotional, very teary, Abad says. And that doesn't work in literature.

But as the years went by and Abad's writing career took off, he began to delve into his father's life. He interviewed Dr. Abad's friends. He read his speeches and op-ed columns. He went through his letters, which Abad keeps in boxes under his desk.

ABAD: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: In Abad's book he recalls a nearly idyllic childhood in a close-knit neighborhood filled with street vendors.

ABAD: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Standing in front of the spot where the family once lived, Abad recalls a rambunctious home - filled with five sisters, his parents, a nanny and a maid.

Colombian men worship their mothers. But for Abad it was all about his father. He was big and bald, with a booming voice. And Abad recalls that he was an overly indulgent father - an alcahueta, or pushover. Dr. Abad heaped deafening kisses and suffocating hugs on his children, the author wrote. He was also something of an oddball - a doctor who, Abad says, hated blood, wounds, pustules, pain, entrails, fluids and emissions.

What he was passionate about was advocating vaccinations in the slums, and also leading protests and letter writing campaigns against politically motivated killings.

ABAD: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Dr. Abad knew that denouncing rights crimes was dangerous, his son says. But he took the risks because he saw how the city was spiraling into violence.

Called the communist doctor by shadowy right-wing forces, Abad was killed on August 25, 1987, a murder that was never solved. His son said that upon arriving at the crime scene, he found in his father's pocket a sonnet by Argentina's Jorge Luis Borges. It had been written out in Dr. Abad's own hand.

It's a poem the doctor had read aloud in a radio address before his death.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

ABAD: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Already we are the oblivion that we shall be, it goes, the elemental dust that ignores us, the dust that was once red Adam and now is all men. The dust we shall not see.

Abad believes that his father knew that he'd be killed for his work. With his memoir, Abad says, he now hopes to rescue his father from oblivion.

Juan Forero, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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