Jacobs: Memories and the Magdalena

Author Michael Jacobs traveled up the Magdalena River for his book The Robber of Memories.
Author Michael Jacobs traveled up the Magdalena River for his book The Robber of Memories.

Michael Jacobs is an immediately recognizable and admired man in literary circles. A tall, white-haired, benevolent and ebullient author whose erudite, illuminating books on travel, culture, history and society in Spain and Latin America have won him widespread acclaim.

From the success of his book ‘Andes’, which recounts a six-month journey in Humboldt and Bolívar’s footsteps across the Andes from Venezuela to Patagonia, his more recent literary venture is the telling of his journeys along the Magdalena River under the title ‘The Robber of Memories.’

The book begins with chapters on the coast before Jacobs travels inland towards Mompóx, Barrancabermeja, Honda and San Agustín. In ‘Robber of Memories’ Jacobs speaks with eloquence about the symbolism of the Magdalena River and the place it occupies in the Colombian popular imagination, as well as the country’s history.

In a meeting with García Márquez during a Hay Festival, the elderly author’s eyes lit up with nostalgia and warmth on hearing of Jacobs’ plans. “I can remember every single stretch of that river,” said Márquez, with characteristic, perhaps tongue-in-cheek exaggeration.

Cover of Jacobs book

Familiar with Colombia’s coastal culture, the author during a trip to Cartagena took in ‘champeta’, the hyped-up Afro-Caribbean music born in the shanties, and was moved by the end of one song which closes with an impassioned ode to the Magdalena.

Jacob also recalls more somberly having read that half of the dead bodies resulting from the period of ‘La Violencia’ in the mid-twentieth century are said to have ended up in the river; and that the area of the river in San Agustín which he traveled was still very much a “red zone” given the sporadic fighting between government troops and the FARC rebels.

Rich through its explorations of the Colombian context, Jacobs notes that his book is “about memory,” with the river providing the allegorical context for an exploration of the richness and frailty of human memory, and more specifically an exploration of his own family’s experience of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

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Jacobs explained to The City Paper how his father, a keeper of impeccable diaries through-out his adult life, suffered from the disease in his later years and how, more recently, his mother has also been diagnosed with dementia.

The book interweaves reflections on memory and on a personal experience with the progress of his discoveries as he traveled down a majestic river. The author’s quixotic quest covers several thousand miles, crossing eight Colombian departments, multiple ports, wide stretches and narrow, silted tracts of the Magdalena.

Before embarking on his journey up the Magdalena, Jacobs did his research with precise logistical questions and noting down numbers of friends and acquaintances along the way. All methods of transport are fore-seen: “three days on horseback” near Honda, laughs Jacobs, “the chug to Barrancabermeja”, other boats thereafter, and the occasional day’s bus ride too. “The river is low in parts at this time of the year, and the floods of recent months further complicate the situation.”

‘The Robber of Memories’ was published late in 2012 and quickly received its acclaims by critics. Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian writes: “his writing deploys a poetic ear and painterly eye to achieve ruminations more akin to those of Coleridge wandering Lakeland than the outward-bound adventurism of a “travel writer”. And according to Ian Thomson of The Telegraph: “In lesser hands, a book such as Jacobs’s could easily stagnate. The Robber of Memories, fortunately, is a triumph.”

Editor’s note: Michael Jacobs passed away January 10th 2014, age 61 after a difficult fight with cancer.



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