Posts Tagged ‘evelio rosero’

Tono the Infallible

January 22, 2023

The Devil is a recurring presence in Scottish literature – from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack. Evelio Rosero’s Tono the Infallible (translated by Victor Meadowcroft and Anne McLean) presents us with a Columbian entry into the genre – even its cover echoes one of the many designs to have graced the front of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye in which Dougal Douglas boasts of the horns that once grew from his head. Here our potential devil is Tono, Antonio Ciruelo, a childhood friend of the narrator, the writer Heriberto “Eri” Salgado. Tono appears at Eri’s door one day, twenty years after he was last seen, demanding use of his toilet – “an earthquake made all the more terrifying for being so intimate” follows – filling the house with the stink of his filth:

“…because it comes from the most hateful and perfidious large intestine of the most hateful and perfidious Tono Ciruelo.”

Eri then recounts his friendship with Tono which begins at age fourteen (a suitable age for temptation) when both are accused of plagiarism (in Tono’s case justified but not in Eri’s) and Tono asks him where he copied his work from. Eri notices “that Ciruelo’s presence gave off coldness,” the first of many hints that he may be more (or less) than human. Despite this, Eri is intrigued by Tono:

“He would tell…these…stories – about himself, about his family – that soon captivated me, to my regret, for my entire life.”

He tells Eri that his father dresses as woman and his parents are separating. When Eri claims he is lying, Tono lets out “the most dreadful roar of laughter I’d heard in my life.” One suspects that the regret and guilt Eri feels relates in part to the way he is attracted to Tono’s stories, and his inability, even as a writer, to compete – as they say, the Devil has the best tunes. On another occasion, Tono turns a fight between Eri and another boy into a brawl using a knuckle-duster, so establishing that sex and violence are where his interests lie. When the sister of another friend, Fagua, is assaulted in the street, Eri begins to suspect that Tono, who appears at their door moments later, is to blame. At nineteen, he is invited to Tono’s home, only for his host to disappear with his thirty-five-year-old sister:

“…something like a slap exploded; then, rolling bodies; a shriek of laughter – a cry? – it was their clothes, their clothes tearing.”

On the same visit he tells Eri, “By the time I was five years old… I was already getting stiff,” and claims to have slept with his cousin at seven.

Tono’s sexual appetite almost gets Eri and Fagua killed when they go on a trip together while still at high school. Tono, whose father is a wealthy senator, is the only one of them with much in the way of money, but when they reach their destination, he refuses to buy food:

“Hunger was devouring all of us by the will of Ciruelo.”

When they threaten to leave, Tono tells them he was “conducting an experiment,” a further sign he sees others, even his friends, as little more than playthings. They find themselves in more immediate danger when they come across women from a wedding party peeing in the woods; deciding it is not enough to simply observe them, Tono places himself beneath the bride in the darkness: “He had his face under my ass.” Now the three of them find themselves in fear of being shot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the friendship doesn’t last, though years later Eri and Fagua will coincide at an airport waiting to meet Tono. After his sister’s assault, Eri says Fagua “became addicted to Ciruelo.” His sister, Angela, goes out with him: “He dazzled me.” There is something irresistible about Tono and, in fact, he claims to be able to hypnotise people.

Book One ends with the last time Eri saw Tono before he appeared at his door twenty years later; Book Two largely tells of Tono’s activities in the years between. These include his Exhibition of Pain, and the setting up of his Freedom Ranch, a form of commune in the countryside:

“The twelve females all fell pregnant, incapable of naming a father with any certainty… There is talk of two schoolgirls… who were confined to sanatoriums.”

This section is perhaps less effective as it is hearsay, and, with distance, Tono becomes a monstrous legend, almost a caricature of evil and excess, but Rosero clearly intends this to be representative of Columbia. (At one point he says, “Nor could Columbia itself escape the exhibition of pain…”) In the end we return to Tono sleeping on Eri’s couch. Could he be dead? You will not be surprised to learn Rosero has one final twist in store in this devastating portrait of appetite and evil.

Books of the Year 2022 Part 2

December 27, 2022

Marzan, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich)

It’s not obvious that the story of a chiropodist from an uninvitingly concrete housing estate in East Berlin would become one of my favourite books of 2022, but that is, indeed, what happened. Marzan, Mon Amour is never sentimental, but often heart-warming, without ever disguising the difficulties of life. The format allows Oskamp to share the stories of her narrator’s many customers, which in turn allows her to present a picture of East German society as it was in the years before the Berlin wall was pulled down. Yet another wonderful find from Peirene books who, despite only publishing three books a year, are frequent contributors to my top ten.

The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier (translated by Adrianna Hunter)

A much more likely inclusion in the best books of 2022 is the 2020 Prix Goncourt winner The Anomaly. The story of a plane which lands twice – once when due and then an exact copy, passengers included, three months later – never has Oulipo been used to such page-turning effect. Telling the story from the point of view of numerous characters is no mere gimmick but actually adds to the tension, and the many nods to Oulipo writers of the past – and even the inclusion of a book within a book – at no point get in the way of readability. Most impressive of all, given its concept, le Tellier produces an ending that works.

Stranger to the Moon by Evelio Rosero (translated by Anne McLean and Victor Meadowcroft)

2022 saw the return of Columbian writer Evelio Rosero to print in English for the first time since 2015 thanks to new publisher, Mountain Leopard Press. Stranger to the Moon is a small book in everything but ideas, Rosero crafts a world where the Clothed and the Naked live divided, the latter largely confined to a crowded house (the narrator spends much of his time in a wardrobe) while the former are free. In what is a disturbing fable about social division, Rosero does not lose sight of his main character as an individual who does not feel like he belongs with either faction. An unsettling tale that you are not likely to forget quickly.

The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

The publication of Nona Fernandez fiction in the UK by Daunt books is to be celebrated. The Twilight Zone, which, like Space Invaders, uses popular culture as an entry point to life in Chile under dictatorship, focuses on one particular member of the armed forces who was involved in the systematic torture of those who opposed the regime – we know this because he confesses in the 1980s in a magazine article the narrator remembers. This is another smart novel on the part of Fernandez as the story of the soldier becomes linked to the story of the narrator, providing an anchor for the reader as well as a reminder that brutal regimes have a long-lasting effect on ordinary people.

Still Born by Guadalope Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey)

Still Born is also a political novel, but here the politics are personal. Nettel is not the first writer to consider the pros and cons of having children, but she asks the questions here in a particularly nuanced way. The novel tells two stories of two women: the narrator, who has made the conscious decision not to have children, and one of her friends, who falls pregnant. Both women are put in a position where their beliefs are challenged: the former by the neglected child of a neighbour, the latter by giving birth to a child who is not expected to survive. Never preachy, the novel makes a genuine attempt to explore the concept of motherhood.

Stranger to the Moon

July 4, 2022

Evelio 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 of his work). It was followed by Good Offices (2011) and Feast of the Innocents (2015), in which Anne was joined in translation by Anna Milsom, both novels incorporating elements of the surreal, but with a clear grounding in realism. Stranger to the Moon, now with Victor Meadowcroft as co-translator, is entirely allegory, a short novel where, in Rosero’s words “the nightmare took control of everything,” written in the late 1980s when Rosero returned to Colombia from Europe:

“I came back to Colombia, and after less than a week in Bogotá I fell in love and went to live in Chía, in the Cerca de Piedra district, among cows and chickens. The little brick house seemed right out of a fairy tale, but also out of nightmares. I stayed there six years, and I wrote Señor que no conoce la luna, because before I lived in Chía I’d never really seen the moon, as simple as that, I didn’t get to know the moon in Paris or in Barcelona.”

Stranger to the Moon wastes no time in making the reader sit up and take notice:

“It’s true that this house is enormous, but there are just too many of us. In order for us all to fit, there must always be one, at least, inside the wardrobe.”

The narrator, however, sees the advantages of inhabiting the wardrobe, not least the ability to “see without being seen,” having grown his nails sharp enough to bore a hole to look through. In this way we are introduced to the world of the Naked who fill the house, only rarely venturing outside among the clothed, a striking allegory for the divide between the poor and the wealthy, or between any powerful group and those who live on the margins of society, expanded further when the narrator reveals their reasons for remaining indoors:

“Not because we’re terrified of going around naked, but because they themselves, those from outside, seem to be the terrified ones, and therefore do everything possible to terrify us, attacking us in all manner of ways.”

The Naked are not only insulted, humiliated and attacked but are literally tortured in the belief that this will somehow cure the Clothed. In one description of torture Rosero alludes to Christ, when the Clothed tie one of the Naked to a tree “giving him vinegar instead of water to drink, and piercing his skin from time to time with sticks smeared in toxic aloe juice.” The Clothed also visit the house for ‘parties’ – “their friendliness is hypocritical naturally” – bringing food which allows the Naked to survive:

“The most frequent visitors like to get us to fight over a plate of lentils, and they place bets.”

The only physical difference between the Naked and the Clothed is that the Naked have two sexes, and at one point the narrator speculates as to whether stories that anything they wear will burst into flames, are intended “to discourage anyone intending to put on clothes in the hope of incorporating themselves – clothed – into the world of the Clothed.”

Much of the novel’s opening establishes the world of the Naked and the Clothed, but it is also suggested that the narrator in some way different. He tells of a time when he was saved from the Clothed by a woman because of the light in his eye – “Let him go, he’s just a wandering gaze” – and it is implied he is of greater intelligence than most of the Naked:

“They were astonished I was able to speak and respond and refute.”

At times he seems as alien to the Naked as he is to the Clothed, and the novel taps into the genre of the sensitive, intelligent child trapped in poverty and gives us hope of escape, however unlikely.

Stranger to the Moon is an imagination unleashed. It exists in a world of nightmare but one which is also recognisably human. Within only few pages you will believe this world exists, and by the novel’s end you may fear you live in it.

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


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.