The antiquarian makes for an unlikely superhero, that is, until one reads the books of Borges, where the bookish and sheepish often seem debonair and daring. Whether they ride out to the pampas to for a knife fight, or obsess over a foreign planet, or decipher a secret code on a jaguar’s fur cut, they never sound as absurd on paper, as they might in real life. Behind each of them, of course, is the legendary reader Borges himself: erudite, blind, inflammatory, romantic. The Colombian writer Hector Abad Faciolince follows in this tradition, and follows Borges, in this new handsome volume, Traiciones de la memoria.
Although not a sequel in the least, to best understand Traiciones we must, like bookworm gumshoe’s, begin with one of Facionlince’s earlier books, a memoir, and a best-seller in his native Colombia, (El olvido que seremos), essentially a meditation on his father, a doctor with philanthropist leanings, taken down by hit men in his native Medellin. When the author arrives, just minutes after they have shot his father, he discovers a poem in his top pocket, from where he derives the title of this memoir. Years later, he corroborates the poem’s origin and discovers it had been recently published in a local literary supplement, attributed to none other than Borges (the poem has yet to be translated into English). For many, the memoir exemplified the loss and hopelessness felt by many Colombians threatened by anonymous gunmen and faceless drug-trafficking kings.
The real story, however, the subject of this book (are we feeling Boregesian yet?) begins when the memoir’s status as a best-seller – the biggest autocthonous hit in Colombia in years – inevitably attracts all sorts of critics and hangers-on, who try their best to tear Facionlince to shreds, accusing him of everything from name-dropping, to fraud. Most of the criticism surrounded the purative Borges poem. Some claimed (another author, William Ospina) it wasn’t even Borges. So like any antiquarian protagonist, Facionlince hits the books. In this case, he must also rely on his contacts spread around the world, from Finland to his native Medellin, in order to verify the true author of that poem he found in his father´s pocket that day. To make matters more complicated, Facionlince has to guess and double-guess his informants because they too are poets and editors, players in the age old literary game of deception, making up, making up having made up, revising, re-revising, and publishing ad nauseam.
To their credit Alfaguara, usually publisher of no frills book designs, he decorated Traiciones with color prints that help sort through the bibliophile’s misadventures. There are candid shots of the book-sellers and bookstores the author speaks of, letters he is sent, old editions of Borges, forgotten literary magazines where the poem appears, in short, clues in the mystery, but more importantly, proof. We know that Facionlince is not pulling our leg. The photos also fit nicely with the books´ intimate overall tone, but more importantly they converts a very unlikely story into an essay of some kind, so the mystery is not some abstraction, in fact, it´s research.
Meanwhile, the caper is a good one. As such, it doesn’t deserve any stuffy comments about its postmodernism, or self-referentiality; it is a mystery first and foremost, however an authentic, and very sincere one — something rare in mysteries. The author, now in his fifties, in the end, hints at the root of his concern for time, namely facing the prospect of his own death, as opposed to coping with that of his father. As the title indicates, it is clearly memory that fascinates Faciolince. The book, a collection of essays (for lack of a better word), is divided into three sections, each tied in some way to that theme. In the first section, we find that everything, even words, are subject to loss and distortion. The second, and much shorter section of the book is a reflection of an affair, while he lived in Turin with his wife, and how, had it gone other ways, it might have changed his destiny. The final piece is nearly a literary essay focused mainly on the other, or “ex-selves” to use Unamuno’s phrase, with which we narrate stories in fiction. The triptych offers plenty of room for conjecturing and speculating. Memory is to blame, or to scorn, or to revere, depending on our understanding of it.
I suppose like every other hero, the antiquarian also suffers from some sort of hamartia, an essential flow: even the mighty Borges, who seemingly rewrote the rules to fiction writing, but lacked pathos. (Are we really to believe that he spent his last years thinking about Rudyard Kipling and tigers?) This is not so for Facionlince. No matter how shrewd Faciolince’s reflections, or pristine his prose, or casual his tone, he is never pretentious. By the end of the book you empathize greatly with him, despite his bookishness, or maybe because of it. Either way, sincerity is this book’s greatest strength.
This book justifies the interest in this middle-aged author, who seems to be getting better with each book; for the less enthusiastic, Traiciones ensures him a place on Colombia´s increasingly long list of excellent writers, whatever genre this book may belong to.