After a chance encounter with Gabriel García Márquez at a literary festival in Cartagena in 2010, Michael Jacobs was inspired to navigate the whole length of the Magdalena River to its source high up in the Andes. The result is this entertaining, touching and quixotic travelogue which blends adventure, history, legend and family memoir. As Jacobs’s tugboat beats on against the Magdalena current, the reader finds himself being borne back ceaselessly into the author’s own past. The narrative cross-currents take us to wartime Sicily, where his Anglo-Irish father met his Italian mother, and 1970s London, where Jacobs studied at the Courtauld Institute under Anthony Blunt. Once he has recovered from his initial schoolboy crush on Márquez (‘this face almost as iconic for me as that of Che Guevara … it was almost as if the Messiah had reappeared’), the book develops into a profound and moving meditation on memory loss. Dementia is a strange premise for a travel book, but it is one that gives The Robber of Memories its unifying thread, allowing Jacobs to explore the darker tributaries of the human mind. His father died of Alzheimer’s in 1998, his mother is living at home in north London in an advanced state of dementia, and Márquez’s powers of recall were already fading when Jacobs first met him.
The subject of Márquez’s memory loss is one that nobody talks about in Colombia, he is told, for it is simply inconceivable that the great national icon should be suffering such a humiliating fate. Yet memory loss, or the quicksand of forgetfulness, is the central motif of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which describes the memory disease that strikes the fictional town of Macondo. Its symptoms are insomnia followed by acute amnesia. In an attempt to combat his forgetfulness, the fictional hero José Buendía ‘marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan’.
As Jacobs’s journey progresses he reflects on the fate of his parents and of Colombia itself, the country of forgetting. Jacobs had never visited Colombia until 2007, but he immediately fell for its charms and myths, which resonated with his own predicament. One Colombian folk tale concerns a robber who comes on horse at night to steal people’s memories.
Jacobs finds the Magdalena seductive, strange and disturbing, with its stream-of-consciousness litany of place names: Purgatory, The Snorer, Whirlpool of Death, The Happy Man, Mosquito Point, Hanged Man’s Hill, Happiness, The Quiet Life, Such is Life, Sausages, Belly Gut, Silence, Death’s Coffer, Lighting and Shadows, The Woman with the Red Trousers, Witches, Last Resort, Big Fanny. As he journeys upstream he recounts the obstacles he negotiated while uncovering the river’s history of pioneering exploration, environmental decline and political violence. A third of the victims of La Violencia, the civil war of 1948–58, ended up in the Magdalena. One of the great paradoxes of the Magdalena is that while it forms the main artery of forgetting in Colombia, you need a remarkable memory to navigate it. ‘You need to know each curve, each tiny variation in the river. You need to remember the position of each hidden obstacle, the part of the river likely to create problems,’ his tug pilot Hector tells him.
Jacobs wears his erudition lightly, and has some amusing encounters along the way with a mobile donkey-library set up to encourage the therapeutic benefits of reading, and with a man who claims to have seen a platypus on the shores of the Amazon (the animal is native to Australia, of course). Was this an example of Márquez’s fabled magic realism, or was there perhaps a more mundane explanation? Had it in fact escaped from Pablo Escobar’s zoo? Jacobs’s odyssey culminates in a surreal encounter with FARC guerrillas who are keen to know how the outside world perceives them and ask him to translate instructions for a laser sight for rifles.
Jacobs never really gets over his schoolboy crush, and on visiting Yarumal, a town with the largest population of Alzheimer sufferers in the world, attributes to Márquez strange powers of prescience. He sees One Hundred Years of Solitude not so much as a commentary on Colombia’s ability to forget its past as an example of the Nobel laureate’s powers of premonition concerning his own fate and that of the world – a third of the world’s population is expected to succumb to dementia and Alzheimer’s by the middle of this century. Márquez is undeniably a great writer but I am not sure it does him any favours to describe him as a prophet. We have all been going gaga since time immemorial. The reason why more us are going senile is surely because of increased longevity.
By far the most poignant part of the book is Jacobs’s portrait of his parents, and his father in particular – a remote figure. In 2010, Jacobs went through his father’s wartime diaries, written when he was serving as an intelligence officer for the British army in Italy. ‘I have a deep inner conviction that I shall rise to considerable prominence as a writer,’ wrote Jacobs senior. It sadly never came to pass. He met his future wife in a Sicilian theatre in 1944 and became a company lawyer at Shell, retiring in his fifties to write, but by then it was too late. His memory was already failing him.