Evelio Rosero: The Armies
Colombia has, for some time now, been plagued by all manner of violence, starting with La Violencia in the late forties, through the rise of guerilla groups, and continuing to this day with the sprawling narcotics industry. Sixty years of bloodshed, naturally, will hang heavy on the national consciousness, and it’s this that Evelio Rosero turns to in his novel, The Armies (2007), which won the Premio Tusquets Editories de Novela in 2006. (The book came out in Spanish after the prize was won, in case you’re wondering.)
It’s little surprise that, with a novel built around a situation notorious for the gross violation of human rights that the book should come recommended by PEN. The recommendation is not a one off, as they’ve recently been supporting a number of translated titles which in some way reflect the PEN Charter. It’s a worthy cause, freedom of speech, and in The Armies Rosero gives a voice to those caught up in a turmoil not of their making, who have no voice.
Ismael is a seventy year old man, a retired teacher, living in the sunny mountain town of San José with his wife, Otilia. There’s not much to his days, now that he’s retired. He feeds the fish, takes walks, and climbs the ladder to pick from the orange tree as a subterfuge to spying on his neighbour’s wife, something which his wife tells him he should at least try and be subtle about. All in all, the pace Rosero opens his novel with is an enjoyable, breezy read, where you just want to take your time and admire the view:
The Brazilian’s wife, the slender Geraldina, sought out the heat on her terrace, completely naked, lying face down on the red floral quilt. At her side, in the refreshing shade of a ceiba tree, the Brazilian’s enormous hands roved astutely along his guitar, and his voice rose, placid and persistent, between the sweet laughter of the macaws; this is how the hours proceeded on their terrace, amid sunlight and music.
While San José sounds almost paradisial, there are hints that all is not well with the world. Explosions and gunshots are heard, first far off, then nearer. Rosero casually mentions coca fields located near the town, which clue the reader in to the proximity of the drug trafficking trade, and by proxy the guerrillas who fund themselves through it. People disappear, sometimes never to be heard of again. Despite all these intrusions on daily life, the author deals not with the people who threaten the village but how the lives of those resident are affected, not just in San José, but all over Colombia:
Years ago, before the attack on the church, displaced people from other towns used to pass through our town; we used to see them crossing the highway, interminable lines of men and children and women, silent crowds with neither bread nor destinations. Years ago, three thousand indigenous people stayed for a long while in San José, but eventually had to leave due to extreme food shortages in the improvised shelters.
Now it is our turn.
While the majority of the population flees, Ismail stays. His wife has gone missing and, having nothing to live for, sees no reason to run. He spends the time looking for her, asking people returning with ransom notices if she was with the taken. Added to his desperation is the fact his age is not so much creeping up on him but gaining: his memory is not what it used to be, he finds himself more and more confused by events going on around him. Sadly, the confusion that Rosero generates in the character transfers to the reader. Not the understanding of the man’s increasing disorientation, but actual confusion brought about by vague passages the book sometimes becomes guilty of. At times like this Ismail’s narration never runs as deep as it could, never quite giving a good account of his inner turmoil, and leaving the surface with few tangible scratches.
There are occasions when being vague works. The title, for example. San José represents any old town in Colombia, its streets home to the full set of stock trades: the doctor, the priest, the pastry seller. From time to time the towns find themselves the target of kidnappings, murders, rapes, and other atrocities. It’s so commonplace that the victimes don’t even know who their aggressors are this time. Are they guerrillas? Paramilitaries? Perhaps even the national armed forces? What makes it all the more shocking is the government’s attitude:
The contingents of soldiers, who while away their time in San José, for months, as if it were reborn peacetime, have been considerably reduced. In any case, with them or without them the events of war will always loom, intensifies. If we see fewer soldiers, we are not informed of this in an official way; the only declaration from the authorities is that everything is under control; we hear it on the news – on small battery-operated radios, because we still have no electricity – we read it in the delayed newspapers; the President affirms that nothing is happening here, neither here nor anywhere in the country is there a war; according to him Otilia is not missing…and so many others of this town died of old age, and I laugh again, why do I laugh just when I discover that all I want to do is sleep without waking?
In The Armies Rosero does his nation a service, bringing the plight of its innocent people to the forefront of others’ imaginations. Issues of prolongued abduction, unnecessary murder, and child soldiers all brought under the spotlight. The biggest issue is in the telling, Ismail’s failing mind ultimately failing to wrench a huge roar back at the world, leaving him whimpering for the most part about how he’d rather be dead than alive. Surely there’s more to be said?
When the soldiers of whatever army to come down to San José they always come with a list of names.
Why do they ask for names? They kill whoever they please, no matter what their names might be. I would like to know what is written on the paper with the names, that “list”. It is a blank sheet of paper, for God’s sake. A paper where all the names they want can fit.
Between the lines of The Armies is a list of names, unprinted, and non-fictional. It’s an eye-opener of a book, and in this respect it’s certainly important. But the narration of Ismail, in his confusion, is quite capable of closing a few eyes too.
December 1, 2008