As the sun bears down on the gardens of a mountainside town, an old man perches on a ladder, picking oranges from his tree. Across the wall he sees his neighbour’s wife sunbathing on the terrace while their young maid takes cares of the daily chores. But the idyllic picture with which Evelio Rosero’s The Armies opens, is quickly evaporated.
For this is Colombia, a country which produces some of the best coffee in the world, but is plagued by the drug trade and bloody internal armed conflict.
The first sign that all is not well in this township retreat comes with the discovery that the narrator Ismael — a retired teacher — has a penchant for oggling women. Otilia, his wife of 40 years, knows he would never do anything more than look but begs him to stop humiliating her.
The next signal of unease is revealed almost casually. Some local inhabitants have ‘disappeared’ it seems; no-one knows where, and there are oblique references to guerrillas and paramilitaries. When Ismael takes a walk early one morning, the menacing atmosphere notches up a gear. A white shadow that runs across the street turns into a group of soliders who march through the town square and demand identification papers. The sound of gunfire signals the approach of war.
The uncertainty is the same for everyone; Father Albornoz replies, spreading his arms; what can he know? He speaks to them as in his sermons, and maybe he is right, putting oneself in his place: the fear of being misinterpreted, of ending up accused by this or that army, of annoying a drug trafficker—who can count on a spy among the very parishioners who surround him—has turned him into a concerto of faltering words, where everything converges in faith …
When Ismael is eventually able to return home, it’s to find Otilia has disappeared. Caught in the cross fire between guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and government forces, the inhabitants all make plans to leave but Ismael cannot go until he finds his wife. He becomes an unwilling witness to a senseless civil war. His reveries about the past give way to the immediate need to survive until his wife returns.
Evilio Rosero was published as Los ejércitos in 2006 and as an English translation by Anne McLean via the independent publisher New Directions Publishing in 2009 in won the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the UK with The Armies. I read it as part of my World of Literature Project, having seen it ranked third in a Guardian Top 10 list for Colombian writing. If I say the the first spot was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you’ll get the idea of the regard for Rosero’s book.
The Armies is a slim novel in terms of page numbers with a somewhat economic narrative style which is sometimes elliptical and needs unravelling. But there is no mistaking the depth of sadness that I felt when I reached the conclusion.
A book I thoroughly recommend.
This review was published at Bookertalk.com in 2013. This is an updated version with formatting changes to improve readability and upgrade to the WordPress block editor platform. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog and #ReadIndies month.