The Armies


Understanding Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is a simple matter of comparison: the first few pages with the last few. The contrast is striking enough that we might assume, if we had not undertaken the journey between, these were two quite different novels. The opening is gentle, almost pastoral. It begins with the laughter of birds; the narrator, a retired teacher called Ismael, is picking oranges while admiring the “slender Geraldina”, his neighbour’s wife, lying naked in the sun; his wife feeds the fish in the pond; her husband plays his guitar and sings. Everything speaks of life. By the end, Ismael is watching the gang rape of Geraldina’s corpse and facing his own death.

Rosero’s use of eroticism as a counterpoint to violence is not confined to either end of the narrative. Shortly after the opening scene, Ismael tells us the story of how he met his wife, Otilia:

“I was dazzled by her dreamy black eyes, her wide forehead, her narrow waist, the ample backside under a pink skirt. The white, short-sleeved, linen blouse showed of her fine, pale arms and the intense darkness of her nipples.”

This glimpse might have led to nothing were it not that almost immediately a young boy appears with a gun and shoots an older man sitting nearby. Their meeting also characterises Ismael as something of a voyeur. “From the first time I met you,” Otilia says, “you never stopped spying on women.” The irony of the novel is that throughout Ismael is often the watcher, the witness, but of violence and loss, and for much of it he is looking for his wife. When he does return to his role as voyeur it is to see:

“Geraldina naked, her head lolling from side to side, and on top of her one of the men embracing her, one of the men delving into Geraldina, one of the men was raping her: it still took me a while to realise it was Geraldina’s corpse, it was her corpse exposed before these men who waited.”

In self-disgust, remembering his previous desire, he imagines himself waiting his turn. All such feelings have been poisoned by the violence around him and his inability to find his wife; we sense it is at this point he gives up.

His wife goes missing during a guerrilla raid on the village – though all the forces that fight through and around the village are simply “the armies”, with neither concerned to protect, and often setting out to harm, the civilian population. Ismael has woken at dawn and decided to go out for a stroll. He hears “a shout in the early morning and then a shot.” Soon “more shots ring out, machine-gun bursts this time.” Ismael finds himself corralled with others in the town square. When he eventually returns home Otilia is not there – a neighbour says she has gone in search of him. Initially, nothing else seems to have changed:

“I am in the garden, which is unchanged, as if nothing has happened, although everything has happened: I see the ladder there, leaning against the wall; in the fountain the flashing orange fish swim.”

From this point on, however, everything does change. Ismael becomes obsessed with trying to find Otilia, often at the risk of his life. He fears that she has been kidnapped like Geraldina’s husband and son, but no ransom demand arrives. Her disappearance strengthens his love for her:

“Thinking of you only hurts, sad to admit, and especially lying on my back in bed, without the living proximity of your body, your breathing, the imaginary words you spoke in your sleep.”

The village increasingly descends into violence, and many people simply leave. The narrative adopts an almost dreamlike quality, and time comes to mean less and less as Ismael questions which day it is: “Saturday?” By the end only the description of the garden suggests how much time has passed:

“There was the pool; I looked into it as into a pit: amid the dead leaves that the wind blew in there, amid the bird droppings, the scattered rubbish, near the petrified corpses of the macaws…”

The novel is, of course, more than Ismael’s story: the usual collection of village eccentrics graces its pages. That almost all of them suffer or die undermines to some extent this cliché of Latin American literature. Ismael himself is not the most fully developed of characters; at times he is more of a wandering consciousness, reflecting fragments of the reality around him. That he begins to doubt his sanity, however, is entirely believable.

This is not a novel that seeks to give a detailed account of the violence in Columbia, it will not enhance your political understanding – but as an impression of what that violence might feel like it is an important success.

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3 Responses to “The Armies”

  1. Books of the Year « 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Armies by Evelio Rosero […]

  2. Booker International Predictions 2022 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Evelio Rosero may reappear with Stranger to the Moon, thirteen years after winning with The Armies (both translated by Anne […]

  3. Stranger to the Moon | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Rosero is best-known in English for his 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winning novel The Armies, his first to be translated (by Anne McLean, who has been involved in all subsequent translations […]

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