Jan/Feb 2013  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Robber of Memories: A River Journey through Columbia

Review by Ann Skea

The Robber of Memories: A River Journey through Columbia.
Michael Jacobs.
Granta. 2012. 273 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84708 407 1.

The Columbian folk-tale figure of the Robber of Memories haunts this book in many different ways. Michael Jacobs' journey to the source of the Magdalena River in Columbia is a record of his travels, but it is also about memory and loss—about history, conflict, disappeared people, and about personal experiences of loss. Jacobs' father died of Alzheimer's, and his Italian-born mother is suffering from severe memory loss and dementia. "I needed to believe," Jacobs writes, "that certain thoughts and memories would always remain, strong enough to counteract any sense of emptiness ahead... as you continue travelling upriver, towards an enigmatic source."

Jacobs' journey through Columbia from the mouth of the river to its source is full of memorable moments, full of excitement, ennui, pleasure, fear, and full, too, of the people he meets and sometimes travels with. Inspired by a chance meeting with Gabriel Garcia Márquez at a literary festival in the Columbian coastal town of Cartagena, Jacobs begins a journey which had long been his dream. Fluent in Spanish, and with many literary connections, he manages to travel from the mouth of the River—The Mouth of Ashes—to its source in the "moorland landscape of bogs, boulders and bare peaks" of the Páramo de Las Papas (the Moorland of the Potatoes)—a name which Jacobs deems "wholly inappropriate to the otherworldly scenery."

He travels by various means: on a tug captained by the exuberant, pessimistic, and possibly unstable Diomidio; by launch and a tiny tug to the turbulent river mouth; by car to various towns which have particular memories for him—historical and literary—and by passenger-service chalupa ("like a covered metal coffin"). Ultimately, half-falling from a horse along treacherous, slippery paths, and then on foot, he reaches his goal, but the events which occur on this final stage of his journey are frightening and worrying.

In spite of the ever present danger of being a British traveller in a country where kidnapping of foreigners is still a very real threat, Jacobs' persistent worry is his mother. Intermittently in touch with her carers by Columbian cellphone, he expects at any time to be called back to Britain. The pull of family prompts memories of his mother's younger days, and he remembers extracts from the diaries he inherited after his father's death, which fill out the story of his parents' wartime meeting and marriage. Memories, too, of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and of the symptoms of memory-loss that he recognized in him when they met, intrude on his travels. But for a thoughtful writer who once studied at London's Warburg Institute, over the entrance to which is inscribed the word Mnemosyne (the Goddess of Memory), this involvement with memories is perhaps to be expected.

Altogether, this is an unusual travel book in which the river, the country, and its delights and horrors, history, and adventure are interwoven with Jacobs' personal worries and his discoveries, delights, and pleasures in a moving and thought-provoking way.


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