In his powerful and uninhibited memoir, Adiós to My Parents, distinguished Mexican author and historian Héctor Aguilar Camín offers up a bold and intimate account of his family’s checkered history, including his father’s poor choices, disastrous business ventures in Yucatán and Guatemala, financial ruin at the hands of his “paternally arrogant” father, and the recklessness that poisoned his marriage and mired his life in scandal and lawsuits. A recipient of numerous national literary awards, including the lifetime achievement award from Mexico’s Instituto de Bellas Artes—the country’s top cultural institution—Aguilar Camín is one of Mexico’s most revered writers. Although also a well-known novelist, with several of his works adapted to the screen, including Morir en el golfo, he is better known as a journalist and writer of Mexican history and politics.
First published in 2014 in Mexico as Adiós a los padres, Aguilar Camín’s memoir has been translated into English for the first time by Chandler Thompson, a journalist who is also responsible for the English language translation of two of the author’s novels, Death in Veracruz and Day In, Day Out. Here, the emphasis of Aguilar Camín’s book is firmly on his ancestry and, in particular, his mother and father’s personal journey. Using a singular approach to chronicling his and their lives, Aguilar Camín jumps back and forth through the decades, offering a genealogical history, revisiting faded memories from youth, exposing ugly family secrets and painful truths, and sharing his parents’ candid stories. In order to fully piece together their lives, he also explores a freshly discovered private portfolio of old family documents containing photographs, receipts, letters, death certificates, wills, and a dossier of lawsuits that track his father’s doings through the years.
Interestingly, the author selects as the starting point the year 2004, commencing his warts-and-all story with a description of an old photograph of his mother, Emma, and his father, Héctor, which he considers the “best photo” he has of the man. Taken sixty years earlier, Héctor senior is a newly married man who, at twenty-six years old, is about to embark on what he supposes will be the best years of his life. Alas, although eventful and varied, his journey proves far from enriching or fulfilling, and throughout Aguilar Camín’s affecting memoir there is a sad, agonizing tone that builds to resentment for the father who eventually deserted his family. “The young man who will become my father is now eighty-seven,” writes Aguilar Camín in the opening pages. “He spends his waning days in an apartment near the Forest of Chapultepec, Mexico City, retelling old stories and repeating old names, among them the name of the woman in the photo, now only a murmur sealed in the glow of forgetting.”
Perhaps the most poignant scene of all is Aguilar Camín’s impressively expressed childhood recollection of the last time his parents saw one another. Recounting the forlorn way his father pauses in the kitchen to bid goodbye, but then avoids saying farewell because he “feels small in the eyes of a wife who now looks down on him” and “doesn’t feel worthy or deserving of a farewell,” we share the author’s despair as he witnesses his father depart the house in surrender, “fulfilling the last wish of a wife who has long since lost her respect though not her love for him.” The father also leaves behind a “gaping hole” in Aguilar Camín’s life, and the boy’s confusion and anguish are evident as he describes the last moments between the two of them: “He watches me stupidly and cries, leaving his face wetter than it already was, dampened by shame and alcohol. I watch him stupidly and tell myself I should remember what I’m seeing so I can write about it some day.”
Aguilar Camín varnishes his sentences with great perceptiveness and lyrical grace, and there is an almost effortless beauty and tremendous sensitivity to his prose, which makes reading his work particularly gratifying. Transporting the reader to places like Asturias and Mexico City to retrace the origins of his parents and grandparents, he invokes artistic license to depict not merely the locales but also their impressions of the place. When his mother walks the main streets of Chetumal for the first time, her face “crisscrossed with shadows from sunlight filtered through the weave of her hat,” we observe the “disheartening . . . jumble of buildings” along the riverbank and feel the “stifling” heat and the “blinding” sunlight, and share their feelings of elation and dread at their new surroundings. Elsewhere, you relish his atmospheric descriptions of the sunless place his father dwells. Here, you find streets filled with “foul-smelling sewers” and “crumbling mansions honeycombed into tiny apartments,” “sidewalks choked with pedestrians skirting puddles, fruit rinds, cigarette butts,” and garbage. Much like Aguilar Camín’s murky, earnest history of his emotions and search for the truth about his ancestors, it is a fascinating place made up of “shades of gray, scratched and blurred like unrestored black-and-white film footage.”
Given the private nature of Adiós to My Parents, you would think that the book would prohibit a readership beyond those with a personal attachment to the author, but, in fact, this is an astute, absorbing, deeply emotional family tale that can move, intrigue, and interest a far broader audience.
About the Reviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of nine literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. He writes regularly for the Colorado Review, and his book reviews for the Lancashire Post are syndicated to twenty newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York.