On the bookshelf
The death of my father the pope: a memory
By Obed Silva
MCD: 304 pages, $ 27
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âI guess death can’t be that bad, because we all have to die,â observes Obed Silva in âThe Death of My Father the Popeâ. “So why do we make so much fuss about life? The question lingers under the surface of this memory like a stain. Silva himself has come back from the brink more than once: a former gang member (a gunshot at 17 left him paralyzed from the waist up), he is now a professor at the East Los Angeles College. âSeven times,â he wrote, âI’m almost dead, and I’ll probably have a few more encounters with death by the time I’m done telling this story. â¦ But I’m still here, for now.
A sense of fragility – or, more precisely, of the fluid interplay between death and life – is a key factor in “The Death of My Father the Pope”, which opens with the death of the author’s father, Juan, artist and alcoholic. who got drunk to death in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 2009, aged 48. Silva structures the book, her first, around her journey across the border for the vigil and the burial, but it is not a linear calculation. Instead, the memory weaves its way through time, using memory and language to shade or expose the intricacies of the father-son relationship.
Take the word “pope”, which for Silva has several meanings. On the one hand, âIn Spanish, the Pope translates to papa, which is the same word used for papaâ. On the other hand, his father was nothing if not larger than life: the Pope to an almost literal degree. “It’s all his work, his work, his magnum opus,” imagines Silva saying to her younger sister. âYour father was the Pope, didn’t you know that, and everything he did was holy. This is why they mourn for him, this is why they mourn his death.
Silva’s observation is both direct and hyperbolic, which could also be said of “The Death of My Father the Pope” as a whole. The author loved his father but hated him too, and his response to death is elation and relief. He only goes to Mexico because of his mother’s insistence. âYou have to heal,â she advises, âand you can only do it if you forgive your father. This is the only way to heal these wounds.
Their exchange establishes the essential tensions of the memory – between the past and the present, the sins of the father and the sins of the son. âThis woman,â Silva recalls, âwho raised me on my own without asking my father for anything – not a dime – was showing me what real strength looked like. It was not in the muscles, nor in the violence, nor in the superiority; it was in meekness and humility, just saying I forgive you and moving on.
For Silva, however, it’s not that simple. “Father, why can’t I cry for you? ” he’s asking himself. “Haven’t you left me yet?” Do I always take you with me wherever I go? Silva makes these contradictions explicit when he looks at the body – “Remember the monster,” he recalls. “Remember the fury” – and cuts his thumb off as he peels off a protective plexiglass sheet. A drop of blood from my finger fell on my father’s face, he recalls, and landed on his cheek just below his right eye. Remembering the tattoo of her name on the dead man’s chest, Silva opens her father’s shirt and rewrites these letters under faded ink, this time engraving them with blood. “You were my father, and I am of your blood,” he whispers. ” I’m your son. I’m your son. Take it, daddy, take your blood with you.
What Silva explores is heritage, which in her case is a minefield of loss. His memories, which keep coming back to permeate the present, are loaded: if they are not always brutal, they are often loaded. Every positive memory – a trip to Ensenada with his father and half-brother Danny; a visit to Los Balnearios Robinson, a Chihuahua water park – is tempered by its reverse: the night Silva’s father tried to enlist four friends to help beat his children, the night that ended at a brothel after taking Silva for drugs. “This is where I buried my father for the first time,” notes the author. âI buried him here, where I found solace in a conversation with a prostitute. This is where the funeral took place; this is where I let it rest.
This sort of praise leaves little room for grief. âMy father loved us, concedes Silva, but he loved us as only a sick person can love someone: indelicately. â¦ He would kiss us one minute and make fun of us the next. He would give us a dream with one hand and crush it with the other.
Eventually, enough became enough – for Silva and also for his mother, who moved with him to California as a young boy after suffering increasing waves of violence and abuse. âAs it has caused her a lot of emotional anguish and physical pain throughout her adult life,â he wrote in the acknowledgments, âmy mother would love to have to do with anything involving my father. By the end of this book you will fully understand why. The final chapter of the memoir, which details Silva’s conception, presents a creation myth that is the opposite of the Immaculate, a manifestation not of redemption but of primordial sin of his father.
The power of “The Death of My Father the Pope” lies in Silva’s willingness to address even that; he never looks away. Her book is an unrequited love story, told in fragments, through the prism of death. “I wish I could give him a hug,” Silva thinks as her father is buried. “I wish I could feel the stubble on his cheeks.” Instead, he’s left with something more elusive but also sharper: justification.
“And why, son, we die together,” imagines Silva asking his father, while in his head he provides the only answer: “You first, daddy, you first.”
Ulin is a former book editor and literary critic for The Times.