Book review | The Armies

Battling the shadow of Garcia Marquez and other Latin American luminaries, Rose Lapira discovers that Evelio Rosero’s haunting, cruel and tender novel can very much stand on its own two feet.

Evelio Roserio's The Armies has struck a chord with international audiences, garnering a number of literary awards in the process.
Evelio Roserio's The Armies has struck a chord with international audiences, garnering a number of literary awards in the process.

What prompts me to read books coming from beyond the confines of the Anglo literary world? The reason is simple.

I believe that reading literature from various countries helps one learn about other cultures, and in some ways I find this even more satisfactory than actual travel.

Latin America is booming with contemporary literature.

For a long period Gabriel Garcia Marquez, together with Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortazar and Mario Vargas Llosa dominated the scene, yet a host of younger writers, all over Latin America have emerged from their shadow and are leaving their mark on the international scene.

Evelio Rosero, born in 1958, is a Colombian writer, whose novel The Armies, is the first of his works to be translated into English by Anne McLean.

Judging by the awards it received, including the UK Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the novel struck a vibrant chord on the international circuit.

It would be pointless to look for Marquez's influence in the novel.

Evelio Rosero is very much his own man, even though he is the first to admit that he has much admiration for Gabo, as the octogenarian writer is affectionately known.

In an interview he is quoted as saying that he hoped Marquez hadn't stopped writing. "We could still get one more book from him, I think. Among Colombian authors I always keep an eye on Gabo. He's the best."

Unfortunately, his writing career may be definitely over for recently, his brother Jaime revealed that Marquez is suffering from senile dementia.

The novel by Rosero depicts the chaos that erupts in a rural town besieged by "the armies" and speaks about defenceless civilians caught in crossfire.

Perhaps its wide appeal is due to the fact that while it narrates specifically about Colombia, the situation described reflects what is actually happening at the moment in many other places around the world.

The Armies is an anti-war novel, but Rosero dislikes being classified as a writer who is influenced by ideology.


He says he was prompted to write it by the indifference he witnessed by his compatriots to the endless civil war raging in his country - daily deaths, kidnappings and massacres - and hopes that it can help "to humanise their perception of reality".

It is narrated in the first person, by Ismael Pasos, a very old man, a retired teacher, who eventually has to confront the ever-increasing nightmarish horrors going on all around him.

And yet, the novel opens on a placid, sensual note, as the old man finds every excuse to go on a ladder to pick oranges, to look on his pretty neighbour, who is in the habit of sunbathing in the nude.

For Ismael, nothing is more satisfying in his old age than to admire the beauty of women. "I ask nothing more of life than this possibility, to see this woman without her knowing that I am looking at her, to see her: my only explanation for staying alive."

But soon matters take a turn for the worse.

The disappearance of his wife Otilia unnerves the old man, as paramilitaries and guerrillas increasingly fight it out in the town. He walks around in a daze, from one place to another in utter confusion, looking for his wife, for whom he still feels a great tenderness, and trying to be of help to the hapless people caught in the shootings.

The author does not take sides and makes it clear that both "armies" are senseless in their destruction and killings. What matters for Rosero is the fate of the people caught in the middle.

Ismael's mental state deteriorates fast and he hardly knows what he is doing.

The book's final tragic sections become more unnerving for us too, as we read of unspeakable acts of cruelty, and we anticipate with trepidation the fate that awaits Ismael.

This is an extraordinary, haunting novel of great power and deserves all the awards it has received.

Despite the atrocities, there is a dream like quality to Rosero's prose. Very beautiful, lyrical passages abound throughout the book, passages that come from the pen of a writer, who is also a poet.

While everyone, deserts the ravaged town, Ismael, whose name literally means "heard by God or Allah", refuses to go away in the hope that he can still find his Otilia.

He can barely take in what is around him and yet he will stay on.

"I do not know this street, these corners, things, I have lost my memory... I shall stay alone, I suppose, but in some way I shall make this town my home, and I shall stroll through you, town, until Otilia comes for me."

This is a novel that can be sensual, cruel and tender, in turn.

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