After Macondo: On Evelio Rosero
Though Rosero's name will be unfamiliar to most North American readers, The Armies is just one of numerous books he's written for adults (he is also well-known in Colombia for his journalism and his children's books) and the novel that earned him the attention of an international audience. The Armies, first published in Spanish in 2007, was awarded the prestigious Tusquets Prize and in 2009 won the London Independent's foreign fiction prize, which Rosero shared with his excellent translator, Anne McLean. It is an extraordinary, devastating book, spare and gripping, by turns painful and cruel. Be warned that Rosero makes it impossible merely to witness the horrors he depicts. He implicates the reader, renders you complicit without your knowing it, then tears everything out from under you.
The Armies was Rosero's second stab at writing about the impact of war on Colombia's civilian population and the kidnapping industry that helps finance the fighting. (Actually, it's his third, if we count Teresita Cantaba, his oddly haunting children's story about a disappeared cow. Not to worry: it was hiding in the bedroom the whole time.) In 2003 Rosero published En el Lejero, a short and surreal novel--think albinos and dwarfs, malevolent hoteliers chewing raw chicken--about an old man searching for his kidnapped granddaughter in a rat-infested mountain village. That first sketch left Rosero unsatisfied. He began interviewing internal refugees who, displaced by violence in the hinterland, had fled to the city of Cali. He drew on their stories, as well as on newspaper accounts, to build the no-less-nightmarish world depicted in The Armies. "All the anecdotes that I narrate are real," Rosero told Mexico's La Jornada.
But The Armies is hardly a realist novel, much less a journalistic one. It has a stronger kinship to Kafka and Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo than to any of Rosero's immediate contemporaries. No one should complain if it is next to useless as a primer on the tortured complexities of Colombian politics. Despite the book's topicality, the closest Rosero comes to a specific political comment is one barely veiled dig at President Álvaro Uribe: "The President affirms that nothing is happening here, neither here nor anywhere in the country is there a war," scoffs Pasos. Rosero achieves a far broader indictment than any finite finger-pointing would allow. The armies of the title are interchangeable, almost invisible. The actual combatants, once they arrive in San José, are visible only as blurs or fleeting shadows: "We catch astonished, fitful glimpses of the fighting troops, without distinguishing which army they belong to, the faces as cruel as any."
This is of course the point, and it's not just made in the interest of allegory. What distinguishes combatants is the fact of their guns, not the details of their uniforms. At close range, the truth of war is its arbitrariness. Pasos's great mistake is that he gets up earlier than usual one morning and goes out for a walk. All else follows from that error of timing. He hears a shot and sees a shadow run across the street. He looks for a place to sit and watch the sun rise and hears machine-gun fire: this time "it is the real war." He heads back home to Otilia but is detained for hours by soldiers in the plaza. The Brazilian has been kidnapped, he hears, though no one knows by whom.
Pasos spends the next quarter of the novel searching for his wife. He looks for her at the house that was once the Brazilian's and is now just Geraldina's--they, whoever they are, took her children too. Pasos looks for Otilia at home, at the rectory, in the plaza. Everywhere he goes, he is told that she has just left. He hears that "they" want San José evacuated, and that its citizens can no longer flee because land mines have been laid around the town. He is about to leave for the hospital, to search for Otilia there, when he hears that "they killed everyone in the hospital including the wounded." Otilia was not among them. No one has taken her, but she's nowhere to be found.
It gets worse, much worse. Nothing is spoiled by revealing that everything is destroyed. The garden is ruined, the fountain blown up, the orange trees blasted before the book is half done. All those Edenic oranges are smashed, robbed of their symbolic weight, reduced to daubs of abstract hue: "sprinkled like a strange multitude of yellow drops all over the garden." Grenades tear a breach in the wall that separates Pasos's yard from Geraldina's. "This hole is a huge irony," Rosero has Pasos observe with a deadpan wink at the collapsing architecture of his own allegory.
This is the novel's strange courage and the source of its power: its author's stoic willingness to take apart everything he's built. Every symbolic vessel is not only emptied but violated. Rosero is unflinching. He does not allow his characters--still less his readers--the meager comforts of their innocence. Even the most elementary forms of narrative desire lead straight to desolation. Because what are readers after all--what are you and I?--but the most perverse and complicit voyeurs, hungry to witness the joys and suffering of others?
In one scene, Pasos finds a gaggle of children crouched in a circle outside his home, their skinny fingers reaching for a hand grenade lying unexploded in the street. He coaxes the thing out of the oldest boy's grasp and tries to chase the children off, but they follow him, an unwilling pied piper: "Silent, impassive, they are surely waiting to see an old man blow up in front of them, never supposing that they too would be blown up." At last Pasos hurls the grenade over a cliff as the children look on, "dazzled by the little flashes leaping up from below.... Their faces are happy, absorbed--as if they were watching fireworks." It hurts to admit it, I know, but doesn't that sound familiar? Pasos is our narrator and unwilling guide so we, unshakable, tag along after him, filled equally with dread and a guiltily delicious curiosity about the horrors the last page will bring.