Travel literature review: The Robber of Memories

The Robber of Memories by Michael Jacobs


Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Steve Waters

Truth be told, Colombia has had its fair share of bad press over the decades. Various drug lords, guerilla and paramilitary organisations, the army, government and foreign interest groups all waged war on each other and the general population with such violence that the country remained a no-go zone for most travellers for much of last century. However, in the new millennium, recent peace accords have had a stabilising effect and violence, especially against foreigners, has lessened. Individual travellers are now trickling back to one of South America’s most beautiful, yet enigmatic countries.

The Robber of Memories relates hispanophile Jacobs’ attempt to travel the length of Colombia’s revered Magdalena River, from its mouth near Barranquilla on the Caribbean Coast to its source high in the Andean Páramo de Las Papas. An early meeting in Cartagena with Colombia's great man of letters, Gabriel García Márquez, fuels his passion and Marquez's observations are continual reference points throughout our author's odyssey. There's more than a touch of Conrad as Jacobs, with a disintegrating sense of security, makes his way Nostromo-like up a rapidly dwindling river to San Agustín and into the heartland of the most feared of Colombia's guerilla groups, the rarely-sighted, yet omnipresent FARC.

With his literary contacts and fluent Spanish, Jacob fleshes out chance encounters and gains rare insights into modern-day Colombia, yet it's when he introduces the motif of memory that The Robber of Memories transcends mere travelogue. Having lost his own father to Alzheimer's, and with his mother slipping into dementia, the author examines our relationships with our parents, what we thought we knew about them, and what it means for them to forget us.

The 'robber' of the title is intentionally ambiguous — referring both to the cold, relentless creep of mental illness, and to a country intent on forgetting its violent past. The Magdalena becomes a symbol for Colombia itself, a rich civilisation polluted (literally) by the corpses of recent history, now trying to wash itself clean.

Jacobs' literary skill and passion for all things Latin makes this a must-read for anyone contemplating a trip to one of South America's most neglected yet enthralling destinations.

Steve Waters works in LP’s Melbourne office and would like nothing better than to swap his desk for a tent in Tierra del Fuego.

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