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.
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 won the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the UK with The Armies. I chose it to represent Colombia in my Reading Along the Equator challenge after noticing that it was 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. It’s slim in size with a somewhat economic narrative style which is sometimes eliptical 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 week I’ve mingled with sweaty unwashed bodies in one of London’s suburbs and savoured the tang of oranges growing on a mountainside in South America. And all without having to queue at a check out desk or wait at a ticket counter. I didn’t even have to be teleported to experience the unwholesome stench of fourteenth century London or feel the oppressive heat of a Columbian village.
The two books I’ve been reading this week remind me that the ability to conjure up a strong sense of a place and a time is one of the aspects of good writing that I love. At its best it can make me completely oblivious to anything else. The clouds may be glowering and the news reports full of yet another war somewhere in the world, but in my head I’m somewhere else entirely.
Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales is set in a period of civil war and has plenty of intrigue and mystery but in the end didn’t live up to its promise in terms of the story line or the characterisation. It did however score high on period detail. I’m now indebted to Ackroyd for enriching my knowledge of now defunct occupations like pardoners and summoners and enriching my vocabulary too. I doubt my local Tesco store sells ypocras and mawmenee (drinks) , or tuzziemuzzies which I think are some kind of plant. But I shall delight in calling someone an old fetart, just to see their reaction. My review of The Clerkenwell Tales is here.
Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is also set during a period of civil war. The main character is Ismael, a retired old school teacher who lives with his wife, Otilia in a mountainside town of San José. Ismael we soon learn is a voyeur. He can’t resist oggling the girls even though he is now in his seventies. Every morning he climbs a tree in his garden to pick oranges just so he can spy on his neighbor’s wife when she sunbathes naked. But behind the tranquility there is the ever present threat of ‘disappearance’ and death as police, drug-traffickers, paramilitaries and guerrillas battle for supremacy in the hills. As chaos engulfs the town, Otilia goes missing and as Ismael roams the streets looking for her, his mental stability begins to teeter. I chose this book as part of my Reading Along the Equator Challenge and so far it’s turning out to be a great read.