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."
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.