After Macondo: On Evelio Rosero
Evelio Rosero's The Armies begins almost idyllically, in a garden. To the bright laughter of macaws, old Ismael Pasos picks oranges. His wife, the slightly less-old Otilia, feeds the fish in the fountain as their cats peer down from an almond tree. In this Eden, it is desire, not satisfaction, that rules. A wall divides the Pasoses' garden from that of their neighbors, the Brazilian (who is not, in fact, from Brazil) and his wife, "the slender Geraldina," who lies naked in the sun as her husband strums a guitar beneath a ceiba tree and Pasos, on his ladder, takes his time with the oranges, watching Geraldina "tanning herself in the morning sun, drinking wine, stretched out with no concern other than the color of her skin, the smell of her own hair as if it were the color and texture of her heart."
Every paradise has its troubles, of course, and the ones in Rosero's fictional rural Colombian town of San José are quaint enough at first. Otilia does her best to shame him, but Ismael, a retired schoolteacher and apparently the third oldest man in San José, cannot resist lusting and leering after Geraldina, after her pubescent maid, after nearly every young woman and girl around. "I ask nothing more of life," he says of Geraldina--even after the Brazilian has gently mocked him for his lechery--"than this possibility, to see this woman without her knowing that I'm looking at her, to see this woman when she knows I'm looking, but to see her: my only explanation for staying alive."
Hints arise of troubles deeper than those brought about by Pasos's indiscreet ogling: the usual small-town rancors and resentments, plus "shouts of the war" echoing in the middle distance. Every year the townspeople gather at Hortensia Galindo's to mark the anniversary of her husband's kidnapping. No one knows if it was the guerrillas or the paramilitaries who took him, or perhaps the drug traffickers or the army, and it doesn't matter much. "They make the most of the occasion": they eat, drink and even dance, though this year there is no dancing, because too many of the young people have left town. Then there's the newborn infant found dismembered in San José's dump. "It's not the first time," says Pasos, who mentions in passing that the neighbors' maid, "almost plump and yet willowy, with rosy glints on her tanned face," had been orphaned when the town was last attacked and "whichever army it was" tossed a stick of dynamite into the church on Holy Thursday "with half the town inside."
Though that event is purposefully left vague in The Armies, in Colombia, where Rosero was born in 1958, it would resonate sharply. In May 2002, when the battle between right-wing paramilitary forces and FARC guerrillas for control of the Atrato River region spilled into the western town of Bojayá, residents sought refuge in the church. The paramilitaries took cover behind its walls, and the guerrillas hurled homemade mortars at them, causing the building's roof to collapse and killing 119 civilians, many of them children. Even by jaded Colombian standards, the toll of the massacre was shocking.
So it's no surprise that the idyll, such as it is, doesn't last. Pasos skips the kidnapping party. His knee is swollen, so he hikes into the hills to see the old folk healer, Maestro Claudino. We are still, at this point, on terrain that a reader whose sole knowledge of Colombia was derived from Gabriel García Márquez would not find altogether unfamiliar. San José is haunted but still picturesque. Though violence renders it bleak, it is still rich in history and in metaphor. But, as Rosero said in a 2007 interview, referring to the village immortalized in One Hundred Years of Solitude, "Macondo doesn't look anything like the towns of Colombia anymore."
On the way up, Pasos is startled by Maestro Claudino's dog. "I thought it was the war coming down on me," he confesses later to Claudino. War, in Rosero's Colombia, is not that more or less comprehensible phenomenon we read about from afar in the newspapers, declared by one party against another and waged for some variety of rational or at least recognizable cause. Here war is more like the Law in Kafka: cruel, implacable and coldly divine. It cares little for politics or the ideologies of those it enlists to kill and die for it. It falls like bad weather and leaps like a dog from the bushes.
Rosero's depiction of war places The Armies within what, at the risk of being overly schematic, we might call the contemporary Latin American literature of disenchantment. Rosero is among the grandchildren of the great literary Boom of the 1960s, part of a generation of novelists who came of age as writers not during the hopeful early years of the Cuban Revolution, or during the insurrectionary tumult and repression that followed it, but in the muddy decades since. The end of the not-so-cold wars of the late twentieth century has in much of the hemisphere meant a bitter sort of peace that can often still feel a lot like war--only without any heroic narrative to redeem it. Thus the depths of disappointment that run like a thick black thread through the work of writers as otherwise diverse as the Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, the Chilean Roberto Bolaño and Rosero's compatriot Fernando Vallejo.
In Colombia, of course, the war never ended but mutated grotesquely on all sides, mating and recombining with the so-called drug war and the elastic politics of cocaine capitalism. Most of the handful of contemporary Colombian novelists whose work has been translated into English--and it is a handful, including Vallejo, Laura Restrepo, Jorge Franco, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and now Rosero--have from various perspectives sought to come to terms with the massacres, assassinations and disappearances that seep daily across the front pages of the local tabloids. There was murder enough in the García Márquez/Carlos Fuentes/Mario Vargas Llosa canon, but the Boom novelists generally found ways to place bloodshed in a historical, psychological and even moral context. "What's new," Castellanos Moya has suggested, "may be the 'democratization' of crime, the absurdity of the slaughter, the loss of reference."