By Robin Bayley
Michael Jacobs, a renowned author and travel writer, with a particular fascination for Latin America and Spain, has recently published, to great acclaim! The Robber of Memories – A River Journey Through Colombia, published by Granta. VL met with Michael at an exhibition of the Colombian artist, Sebastian Montoya, to discuss the book, his experiences while writing it and how the book changed his perception of Colombia.
VL: The book cleverly interweaves meditations on memory, of the battles with Alzheimer suffered by your parents and Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s loss of memory, and an eventful journey through Colombia up the Magdalena. Could you explain how these various motivations for the book converged?
MJ: Quite spontaneously. The first idea was to do a book about the Magdalena, as a river that was emblematic for me of all that I found fascinating and seductive about Latin America. But it completely changed direction when I went to Cartagena and had a chance meeting with Gabriel Garcia Márquez. He was in a crowded bar, surrounded by admirers, but looking completely lost, and with an expression that reminded me of my father, who had died of Alzheimer’s ten years earlier. When I later had the opportunity to talk to him, it became clear that his memory too was going. But what struck me in particular was the way his face lit up when I mentioned my interest in the Magdalena. “I remember everything about the river, absolutely everything”, he said to me immediately. I told all this to my editor, who encouraged me to write a book that would be as much about memory as it would be about a journey – the sort of cross-genre travel book I had always wanted to do. A few days later I read in the New York Times about the cluster of villages in Colombia which had the highest incidents of Alzheimer’s in the world. I also reread Márquez’s work and realised how prescient Cien Años de Soledadhad been; not only does the village of Macondo lose its memory, but the very first line of the book has the word ‘remember’ in it. … I think all good travel books must come from some internal necessity and an often uncanny intuition.
VL: You talk about the extraordinary encounter you had with Gabriel Garcia Márquez at the beginning of the book and refer to a sort of conspiracy of silence about his condition – especially in Colombia. Were you at all apprehensive about revealing this in the book?
Of course I was, but I was fortunately pre-empted a few months earlier by one of Garcia Marquez’s brothers, who made a public statement about the writer’s rapidly deteriorating condition. My friend Jaime Abello, the charismatic director of the outstanding school of journalism founded by García Márquez in Cartagena, was not at all pleased by this. Jaime, who has always been very defensive of his master’s reputation, announced afterwards that the writer has merely the forgetfulness typical of someone of his age. There is indeed a great ethical dilemma behind all this: the importance of increasing public awareness of memory loss has perhaps to be balanced by the need for privacy and dignity. I personally feel that you shouldn’t whitewash the whole issue, while remaining deeply aware of the problems involved in being too honest. I’m sure members of my family may well complain about me for writing about my parents
VL: Cien Años de Soledad was obviously a big influence on you and the book. What other Latin American and Colombian writers helped you to identify with Colombia and the Magdalena before beginning the journey?
When I first went to Colombia, I read an absolutely brilliant work by William Ospina called Las auroras de sangre, a superlative piece of literary resuscitation on a largely forgotten conquistador poet called Juan de Castellanos, who wrote the longest poem in the Spanish language. Ospina makes the convincing claim that Castellanos was the poetic discoverer of the New World, and foresaw figures such as García Márquez in capturing the magic of the continent, while also having an encyclopaedic fascination with the place that looks ahead to enlightened scientists such as Humboldt. Humboldt, I must add, is another of my great heroes, and the person whose writings – with their constant sense of wonder and awe in the face of nature – were the ones that first inspired my interest in the Magdalena. Another important influence on me was García Márquez’ s great friend Álvaro Mutis (a descendent, curiously enough of Humboldt’s botanist mentor José Celestino Mutis). Mutis, a novelist as well as a poet, will be remembered above all for his tales of Maqroll the Sailor, which are set all over the world, but include also some extraordinary evocations of the Magdalena. Although they are works of fiction, I count them as among my favourite travel books.
[A further list of Michael’s recommendations has recently appeared in the Guardian.]
VL: You first visited Colombia in 2007, despite have travelled extensively throughout the continent. Why did it take you so long to go?
It just never happened. I supposed I was put off by the political situation in the 1990s, or the way it was portrayed outside the country. I got to know Colombia when I was travelling the whole length of the Andes. The moment I crossed the border from at Cúcuta, I just fell in love with the place and I regretted having not gone there earlier
VL: Bearing in mind the VL readership, what revelations and observations about Colombia does The Robber of Memories offer Latin American or Colombian readers?
Well, I’ve certainly become aware since first planning the book of the extent to which the Magdalena holds an almost mystical appeal to South Americans, and to Colombians in particular. I met countless people in my travels who told me how much they themselves had wanted to travel along the river, but never had had the opportunity to do so. People were constantly asking me what the experience was like.
VL: Is there a Spanish version available?
I’m not sure what the present situation is, I very much hope that there will be. As you know, these things can take time and it’s only just come out in English.
VL: Not surprisingly, much of the comment in the UK press about the book has focussed on your encounters with FARC. How have Colombians reacted to that element of the book?
Many Colombians have praised me for my honesty, and for revealing an unexpected side to the FARC. But of course, most Colombians are understandably sick to death of the subject, and hate the way foreign commentators dwell endlessly on it, and sensationalize their country (which I certainly don’t do!). By admitting that the presence of the FARC is still considerable in Colombia, you inevitably are going to antagonize those promoters of tourism and industry who are behind the slogan, ‘Colombia, the only danger is wanting to stay’. Most of Colombia today is very safe , and I feel safer generally in Colombia than I do in my London borough of Hackney! But you cannot say that everything is perfect in Colombia, and I don’t think you’ll be putting people off from coming here by trying to portray the place in a more balanced way. In any case, I was never intending to write a travel brochure, and indeed find the way in which modern tourism is making the world an ever more uniform place slightly disturbing. One of the most surreal aspects of my meeting with the FARC was learning that even they wanted to expand their operations into the tourism industry!
VL: How did the researching and writing of the book change your view of Colombia?
It made me love Colombia more than ever. Slowly travelling up the Magdalena revealed to me the country in all its diverse beauty, introduced me to some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met, and also made me yet more aware of the terrible problems the Colombians have had to face throughout their history. What was particularly important was getting away from showpiece towns such as Cartagena, and getting to know a country beyond the well-trodden tourist route. Such ill-famed places as Barrancabermeja turned out to be an absolute delight.
VL: And how did it change your relationship with the loss of memory?
The book is about the tragedy of memory loss, but it’s also about the magic that remains, and the strange, surreal world into which those who suffer memory loss disappear – for all we know García Márquez might be re-inhabiting the world of his fiction. I like to think about my father clinging to the memories of the night he met my mother met in Sicily.It’s these magical memories that sustain us.