Archive for the ‘Evelio Rosero’ Category

Good Offices

February 4, 2012

Evelio Rosero won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009 with his novel of civil war descending on a small Columbian village, The Armies. Now he returns with a second novel translated into English, Good Offices, where we are introduced to another isolated and inward-looking community, though with the more pacific setting of a church. This is a slighter novel, weighing in at only 141 pages, and the story it tells takes place over one night, with little in the way of action. What it does share with its predecessor is the haunting sense of a perfectly realised other world with its own unsettling logic.

The main character is a young hunchback, Tancredo, who has been brought up in the care of the church, and Father Almida in particular. Tancredo describes Almida’s household as being made up of:

“…the three Lilias, Machado the sacristan, his god-daughter, Sabina Cruz, and he himself, the acolyte, he himself, Tancredo, he himself, the hunchback.”

As we have been aware from the opening sentence (“He has a terrible fear of being an animal”), Tancredo is uneasy about his identity. He spends much of his time organising the community meals the church offer (for the elderly, for prostitutes, for street children: on each day there is a different category of needy), but has been long promised that the church will finance his further studies in theology and philosophy (though Almida has “been saying the same thing for the three years they had been offering the Community Meals”). He has also been secretly visiting Sabina in her room at night but has now decided, despite her pleas, that he “won’t be coming anymore.” He offers her little in the way of explanation, and we are given the impression of a character who would wish to assert his own identity if he could only be sure what it was. When the sacristan is introduced he is described as:

“…an obscure man, a shadow like the Lilias, and not just because he dressed all in black, but because of his deep reserve, a ring of blackness like a pit.”

To some extent this is true of all the characters, with Rosero deliberately obscuring their motives.

The chance for change occurs when Almida and the sacristan have to leave to visit a wealthy parishioner:

“Tonight…this very night, for the first time in all the years I lived with him, Reverend Father Juan Pablo Almida will not say Mass.”

After some difficulty locating a replacement, Father Matamoros appears. Though clearly a drunk, he sings like an angel and his Mass makes a profound impression on the congregation, the Lilias in particular. They ply him with food and drink, and we soon discover dark undertones in their comments on a particular cat who steals from their kitchen:

“He’s the thief…He’s driving us to despair, he’s asking for trouble, as they say; he gives cats a bad name.”

The name of this cat? Almida. Eventually even Tancredo is able to confide in the priest and “make his confession”:

“’No-one can rest here,’ he said, ‘we’re worked to death’
“To tell you the truth, he thought quickly, everyone here wants to kill Almida and the sacristan.”

Slowly Almida’s corruption is revealed, and his return becomes the focus of the novel’s tension. Rosero, of course, also has a wider target: the church itself, its leaders and its role in the community. While such satire might have a greater resonance in Catholic South America, this remains a haunting novel with a satisfying denouement: we might even consider that Tancredo will be able to reconcile the animal and intellectual sides of his character.

The Armies

October 3, 2009

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.