Colombia is almost certainly among the most difficult places on Earth for an outsider to understand. For forty years, the country has been embroiled in a civil war that pits various arrays of paramilitary groups and well-armed drug cartels against one another, with the government caught somewhere in between. In some parts of the country, warfare has been constant for decades—so long that it is simply sewn into the flesh of everyday life. That such a state of affairs deforms life from what most of us would consider normal is obvious and tragic; what is less remarked upon is the difficulty of empathizing with those affected by the war, the great challenge to someone who has not experienced this life in comprehending what the everyday is like for the those enmeshed in it.
Great art has always played a facilitating role in exactly this way. Even in this era of photographic and cinematic plenty, true art is has a near monopoly on conveying authentic subjective realities that can rarely be related otherwise. This is the tall order that the Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero has set for himself in his 2007 novel, The Armies. Winner of The Independent’s Foreign Fiction award in 2009 and widely lauded in the British press, the book arrives on U.S. shores highly recommended. Reading it, one hopes for a document that will articulate the fabric of everyday life in this extreme environment; indeed, if the interviews Rosero gave after receiving the Foreign Fiction award are at all accurate, this was the author’s foremost aim in writing The Armies.
Unfortunately, The Armies is only a partially successful novel—or rather, a successful enough experiment to make the overall failure more acutely felt. Occasionally, the book strongly evokes certain aspects of the struggles that continue to take place in the Colombian mountains and jungles. More often than not, though, its failures only highlight the difficulties inherent in writing about this war as well as those qualities that separate good fiction from average.
The book starts promisingly with a vision far removed from war: the septuagenarian Ismael is standing in a ladder and peering above his wall, eying the exposed nipples of his young Brazilian neighbor as she sits ravishing and naked with her guitar-strumming husband. Barely have we begun to assimilate this strange scene than we find ourselves within the Brazilians’ kitchen, where the 12-year-old maid Gracielita stands washing dishes as Eusebito, their son, peeps at her and is “fascinated and tormented by [her] tender white panties, slipping up through generous check.” This scene of mutual ogling could be taken in any number of directions—significantly, though, Rosero ends the scene with the information that Gracielita only became a maid after being orphaned “when our town was last attacked by whichever army it was.”
In the following pages, Rosero is deft in elaborating the nuances of the lecherous relationship between Ismael and his married neighbor, Geraldina. One feels that the beautiful Geraldina is both awed by her beauty and greatly proud of it—she doesn’t know what to do with Ismael’s improper attentions, although she definitely knows that she likes the way they make her feel.
Rosero then turns our attention to the relationship between Ismael and his wife, which, befitting a couple with decades of stagnant marriage behind them, isn’t nearly as rich. Though Otilia chides her husband for his lechery, her resignation is clear, especially when she disinterestedly suggests that he take his problem to Father Albornoz. Ismael sets out on his journey, yet this domestic drama is soon to be interrupted by the arrival of the armies as they battle over the village.
In these early pages Rosero is economical and subtle in presenting an interesting web of relationships. The novel is narrated in a detached first-person by Ismael, and his interest in the Brazilian Geraldina is vaguely reminiscent of Humbert Humbert. Ismael’s desires mix provocatively with Eusebito’s fetishistic interest in the maid Gracielita; his leer is boyishly innocent, yet its implications for the social relationships that the long Colombian war has insinuated into these communities is sinister.
At any time of the day the children would forget the world and play in the garden burning with light. I saw them. I heard them….
Sooner or later the shout would come from the terrace: it was Geraldina, more naked than ever, sinuous under the sun, her voice also a flame, sharp yet melodious.
She called: “Gracielita, time to sweep the hallway.”
They left their game, and a slight sad annoyance returned them to the world. She went running at once back to the broom, across the garden, the white apron fluttering against her belly like a flag, hugging her young body, sculpting the pubis, but he followed her and soon enough took up again, involuntarily, not understanding, the other essential game, the paroxysm that made him identical to me, despite his youth, the panic game…
From this promising start, however, the novel falters into a far more mundane depiction of the village; ironically, this mundanity comes right when the soldiers arrive. The village is soon invaded by armed men who wage a firefight, killing a number of residents and taking as hostages Ismael’s wife and Geraldina’s husband and children. As life goes on, Rosero follows Ismael’s fraught attempts to make sense of the loss. Before long the armies once again come, bringing further disaster and a resolution to Ismael’s problems.
One wishes that the sense of perversion that pollutes these early pages would have stained more of the novel, for it is in these early pages that Rosero captures the strange yet not wholly inaccessible moral space that is emblematic of a part of the world where well-armed, privately financed armies regularly fight to the death for tiny, impoverished towns and villages. Yet as The Armies plays out this Colombian warzone begins to feel too much like just another battle, Ismael’s thoughts and concerns like those that might arise from any number of scenarios of loss. Undoubtedly there is something universal about Ismael’s story, and Rosero cannot be faulted for trying to show his common humanity, but more often than not the commonness of Ismael’s thoughts and actions feel less like an appeal to the universal in strife than a failure of the imagination. We are no longer so much in the deft and the nuanced town from the novel’s opening pages as in a dull and ill-defined space that feels too much like anywhere.
In Rosero’s favor, when the armies descend upon the village he skillfully conveys the sense of confusion that is part and parcel with an unending war. There is no loudspeaker to announce the beginning of hostilities, there is no radio news report to let citizens know that the was has begun again for them. There are only rumors and worries. It starts with a “white shadow” that “runs across the street.” Soon there is the sound of machine guns in the distance. At one point Ismael is mysteriously detained with a group of men, but then released on account of his age. Soldiers continue to waft in and out of his day, and no one seems to know what is going on, although they all are impressed by the same feeling of menace, the same dull feeling of this all having happened before. Life carries on more or less as usual, but with the looming threat of disaster.
This is truly a perverse state of affairs, far more perverse than the mere lechery described at the beginning of The Armies, yet none of Rosero’s characters seem to know how to properly represent it. At times a flavor of that earlier perversion is present, as, for instance, when Ismael utterly ignores the new school headmaster who confides his shock that no children attend the school.
More often, this sense of perversion is lost. Referring to the great care that the town priest must exercise in all conversations in order to preserve his life and the integrity of his church (which was already once bombed and rebuilt), Ismael laments:
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: pray to heaven that this fratricidal war does not reach San Jose again, may reason prevail…
Ismael’s reaction here is typical of the kind of failure The Armies indulges in too often. His thoughts feel too scripted, his response to the priest’s display far too rational and measured, and they fail to convey anything particular to separate the Colombian experience from similar ones in other parts of the world. Moreover, why is it that Ismael has such perspective? As a citizen caught up in this war would he really be in a position to so calmly judge the priest’s display, or would his own sense of logic and morality not be as twisted and confused as the priest’s? It is a hazard that Rosero runs constantly into in this book. He seems to want Ismael to both embody the pain, disillusionment, and madness of this war, while also trying to raise his voice up into a kind oracle that can see what his fellow citizens don’t quite. Rosero has said that he originally wrote The Armies in the third-person and then switched to the first, and indeed, too often this book sounds as though too much information is being made to fit into Ismael’s single consciousness.
The Armies, once so full of potential, continues to pale once the combatants leave. Though Ismael’s wife has been kidnapped during the invasion, his mounting fear for her safety as the months pass is difficult to believe: Is this really the same man who earlier thought “if she loved me today as much as she does her fish and her cats perhaps I would not be peering over the wall?” Of course, it is utterly plausible that Ismael might be jolted into remorse at the kidnapping and sudden loss of his wife, but this man who previously had such little regard for his wife’s companionship never notes this incongruity, and never once wonders where his sudden passion for her has come from. He merely offers us uncharacteristically overheated remarks like “right that very moment I am going mad at the edge of this cliff and feeling that a hand could push me at the most unexpected moment.”
In the concluding fifty pages The Armies does begin to gain momentum. Although the changed relationship between Ismael and the now-husbandless and childless Geraldina never becomes quite convincing, Rosero does write a number of good scenes for the wandering Ismael that begin to exude the madness of this war. Particularly successful is a Beckettian moment in which Ismael speaks through a closed window to an elderly friend who has been left for dead by his children after suffering a heart attack when the armies once again descend:
“Open the window, Celmiro.”
“Didn’t I tell you I can’t move? Thrombosis, Ismael, do you know what that is? I am older than you. Look at you, after all: out in the street, and dancing.”
“I can only move my right arm, to take a piece of meat, what will I do when I need to relieve myself?”
“Here they come, shooting in all directions.”
Time goes by. I hear something fall, inside.
“Damn,” I heard Celmiro say.
“The frying pan with the kidneys fell. If a dog gets in here I won’t be able to frighten it away. It’ll eat everything.”
A word should be said about Anne McLean’s translation, which is generally successful but breaks from character often enough to be obtrusive. After a charged encounter between Ismael, a naked Geraldina, and her husband, it is simply bizarre to hear the lovely Brazilian say in closing to Ismael “Thank you for the orange, kind sir.” Likewise, something sounds off about guerrillas talking like mobsters when they exhort one another to “whack him.” At other times, it seems that too much of the original language has been kept in the translation. In English, no one utters the wish, “I want to sleep unconscious,” and the following is simply a construction that is ungrammatical: “She discovered suddenly, my gaze drawn, like a whirlpool of cloudy water, full of who know what powers…” Perhaps that gaze could be drawn as if by a whirlpool of cloudy water, but I don’t see how a gaze is drawn like a whirlpool. This lengthy sentence also sounds off amidst the rest of Rosero’s prose, which is utterly economical and concise, almost calcified in its concision and respect for the rules of syntax.
In the end, The Armies is a partially successful novel, a book with enough good points and potential to make the dead weight that surrounds them lamentable. It is laudable that Rosero has taken it upon himself to speak for the victims of his nation’s war, but worthy causes alone do not make for good art, no matter how often book critics may patronize mediocre novels that depict harsh realities around the globe. One hopes the strong reception accorded The Armies will spur publishers to make more of Rosero’s novels available in English, and that these novels will in turn be more complete works.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation, a magazine of literary criticism and essays. He also writes regularly on literary fiction for a wide range of publications.