Friday Reads – Robber of Memories by Michael Jacobs

Two weeks ago I wrote about reading More Terrible than Death, and how I came away from it a lot more knowledgeable about Colombia but also quite a bit more afraid! I decided I had to find something more recent and hopefully slightly more upbeat to try to give me more of a picture about what Colombia is like today.

To that end, I turned to Robber of Memories by Michael Jacobs, a non-fiction book  published in 2012 which follows the author’s attempts to travel up Colombia’s main river, the Magdalena, from mouth to source.


His explorations of Colombia are intertwined with his mother’s decline into dementia, and the love story between his mother and father, ascertained from reading his father’s diaries, and the death of his father from dementia. The theme of loss of memory runs throughout the book, as Jacobs’ journey begins with an encounter with the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, now suffering from Alzheimers, contains references throughout to 100 Years of Solitude, in which the inhabitants of Marquez’s fictional village suffer a “plague of forgetting“, and the book investigates the curious case of the “Alzheimers plague” in the areas surrounding Medellin (have a look here for more information).

My father was such an absent-minded  person that it was difficult at first to tell when his memory began to fade.

This took me aback, I wasn’t expecting something so personal, and it was hard for me to read at the time, provoking my fears for my grandma, who at that point was seriously ill in hospital with acute pneumonia and worsening parkinsons disease. I sympathised with the author’s fears that his mother would die while he was miles from home, without an Internet connection or phone signal to say goodbye or hear the news. In the end of course, I was not in Colombia, but in the next-door Scottish village to my grandma’s hospital when she died, but still without any phone signal to receive the news she was worsening, still without being able to say goodbye.

On the other hand, my grandma has now been spared the months she would have hated, and which I was dreading on her behalf (and my own) as I read Jacob’s description of his father’s last months:

I  would sit for an hour or two holding his wrist. He would look surprised and then smile. I wondered what if anything was going on inside his head as he sat in the communal sitting room, surrounded by the groans and banter of the fellow demented, watching uncomprehendingly whatever was on the television but without being focused on anything. The emptiness of his stare was something I would never forget.

So the personal parts of the book really affected me. Less affecting was the depiction of Colombia, which I felt for most of the book was far too lighthearted and made no attempt to dig beneath the surface. I probably felt this especially having just read Robin Kirk’s More Terrible than than Death, in which she described her fear when waiting at the airport for a flight into Colombia. Contrast that with Jacob’s lighthearted depiction of a discussion with the ship’s captain:

“If I were to speak in Barrancabermeja as I’ve just spoken to you now a hired assassin on a motorcycle would probably finish me off” – he [the captain] gave out one of his booming laughs”.

The author discusses the conflict between paramilitiaries and guerillas in Colombia, but with little understanding that the majority of the victims in these conflicts were civilians. Indeed, he describes the massacre of civilians in Barrancabermeja as “senseless“, commenting that the victims were all apolitical civilians, without any recognition that the existence of civilian victims was normal in this war.

But then I realised that obviously Jacobs would be more dispassionate about this massacre and the numerous murders of civilians during Colombia’s worst years – for him, they were 14 years ago, they were history. For Robin Kirk, they were her present, and documenting all the horrors of the war was her job.

I read on, slightly more sympathetic, but felt slightly smug when Jacobs has his own realisation of the dangers of Colombia, in a conversation with a local woman:

“Puerto Berrió, she repeated, hadn’t changed all that much in recent years…. They had demobilized in return for concessions that made many of them immune from prosecution for their past crimes. And still they persisted with their former terror tactics. One person a day was assassinated in Puerto Berrió, a town with a population of 27,000.”

All this seemed so unreal from my table at a restaurant in a busy part of Medellin, loud music playing, surrounded by young people from Medellin, beautiful, relaxed, eating, drinking, smoking, chatting – no sign of any fear.

And then the book became even more unreal but more gripping as Jacobs grew closer to the source of the Magdalena, farcical in parts, horrible in others. I’ll say no more so as not to ruin it, as despite my initial reluctance, I really enjoyed this book and would certainly recommend it, even if you have no desire or ability to visit Colombia.

Because ultimately, the only way you can know what Colombia is like today is to live there, and failing that, at least to visit, not by reading a book, no matter how good that book. Hopefully, if you do, you will discover, as I did, that Colombia is full of people who are passionately proud of their country and their little region of it, who will be  very pleased you have come to visit, who are knowledgeable and opinionated about the current politics – corruption, the peace process. You will find that Colombia is an incredibly beautiful country, with huge biodiversity and dramatically different landscapes, from the desert to the jungle with so much in between, that there is poverty, obvious and extreme, but there is also infrastructure – roads, wifi, lovely restaurants. Don’t judge it on the books or even on what I’ve said, if you can, go and see for yourself 🙂



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