The Robber of Memories
by Michael Jacobs
Granta Books

Gabriel García Márquez has a problem. The Nobel Prize-winning author of classics such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera is forgetting, his mind trapped in the ceaseless ebb tide of Alzheimer’s.

Michael Jacobs, the intrepid English travel writer with a penchant for Spain and Latin America, has a problem, too. The disease killed his father and much the same is now happening to his mother.

While attending a literary conference in Colombia, Jacobs stumbled into Márquez, whose look–”slightly angry and puzzled…as if he had become frightfully aware that he had no idea who these people were and what he was doing in their company”–reminded him of his English father before he succumbed to Alzheimer’s and the current appearance of his Italian mother suffering from dementia.

When Jacobs mentions the Magdalena River–one of the country’s most mythic waterways–Márquez turns to him, firmly grips the younger authors’ wrist, and in a flash of lucidity softly remarks: “I remember everything about the river, absolutely everything….”

And so begins Jacobs’ voyage into seductive, steamy Colombia to find the source of the legendary river and perhaps to make peace with an end that he himself may meet later in life.

The Robber of Memories is first and foremost a travel book, and one written by a master of the genre. An author of numerous books on travel and art, his 2010 work Andes was a rather ambitious tome that retraced the route of the famed German scientist Alexander Humboldt across the western stretches of South America from Bogotá, Colombia, to Punta Arenas, Chile.

In The Robber of Memories, Jacobs interweaves the reading of his father’s decades-old diary and frantic phone calls back home to his ill mother with the dangers of river travel, the modern history of the country, and the ever-present FARC, the shadow of which colors the prose throughout.

Next to Jacobs, we discover that the human cadavers floating on the river–victims of long running political violence–are a common occurrence. Yet in his hands, even the darkest moments are not without an ember of hope. Conjuring Ingmar Bergman’s Shame, Jacobs writes that “I began imagining the Magdalena as flowing over the remains of all the people who have disappeared into its waters….Then a rainbow leapt into the deepening blue sky, taking my thoughts elsewhere.”

Jacobs is at his most poignant when reading through his father’s diary and rediscovering the naivete and delusions of youth. His father dreamed of being a writer and even believed himself capable of greatness at it. Yet when he gave him some of his drafts to look over, Jacobs’ heart sank upon the realization that they were clumsily written, disorganized, and showed little potential.

As we journey up the tortuous, narrow river, inching closer to the source of the Magdalena–a place that promises to be more idyllic with every passing villager–we meet a medical researcher devoted to studying the causes of Alzheimer’s, Dr. Francisco Lopera. Lopera’s work, however, has been hampered by the rampant guerrilla activity in a region with an abnormally high rates of the disease. After advising Jacobs against further travel in the region, he assuages part of the writer’s anguish by telling him that it is likely his father–despite the fearful look he shared with Márquez–did not realize what was happening to him as he drew closer to death.

Jacobs’s work here offers something for a variety of readers. For those who have dealt or are dealing with the diseases of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other “robbers of memories” in their own family, there is the opportunity for catharsis and perhaps even inspiration. For others, Jacobs has presented an unforgettable river trip into the heart of Colombia, filled with jungles, mountains, and armed guerrillas soldiers–both shy and menacing.