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."