The Armies by Evelio Rosero
Clinging to the remote mountain-sides of Colombia is the unimportant town of San José. Clinging to the ladder leaning against his orange tree the retired profesor Ismael is admiring the undoubted charms of the Brazilian's wife as she sunbathes naked in the neighbouring garden.
Languid is the inescapable word. For the life, for the words used to describe it. Geraldina is the sunbathing wife of the Brazlian; Gracielita is the adopted-child-housekeeper, Otilia the long-suffering wife of the voyeur in the orange tree. The very names speak of the slowness, of the passing of a life in a small town, where oranges grow, and people sunbathe naked in their gardens, where higher up on the hill-side the healer Claudino still filches patients from the medic Orduz.
Appearances can be deceptive. There are harsher characters too: Rey, Berrió, the unknown vendor Hey.
And there are the shadows.
The shadows are the soldiers, the Armies of the title, the government army, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, the police, the drug dealers and gun-runners, who knows? The men in uniforms or combat gear that might have passed once for a uniform, or intended to.
Then there are the other shadows that linger longer. The missing. Those whose disappearance is marked by a pseudo-wake every year, and those taken that same day who have, strangely, not been missed at all.
This is Colombia. A place of low-level civil conflict that has its roots in the 1940s and has continued almost unabated since the mid-1960s. It is a societal and political war, complicated by the opportunities for illegal activities and their related business interests. It is a place of sorrow, and of fear, but where life goes on all the same. Oranges are grown. Love affairs happen. Children are born and schooled. Marriages survive and fail. Religion succours and interferes and ignores. Love itself endures.
Ismael has endured this far. As have some of his oldest friends. Friendships have survived and faltered. Secrets have been kept, or betrayed, or were never as secret as first thought. Life endures.
He is an old man, with an old wife, a dodgy knee, and oranges to be picked, which enables him to look over the wall.
Occasionally, the explosions are heard and the shooting, and the fear rises that the war is going to come again to San José. The Armies tells of the few days when it does. Death, destruction, abduction and abandonment: and no apparent purpose to any of it.
With only the merest touch of hallucination and magical realism that we have come to expect of Latin American writers, Rosero stays mainly in the real world where there is sorrow enough to engender a poignant tale of human degradation and the madness of unwinnable wars. It is a very personal story. We follow Ismael as he loses his way, among either the brutality or his own age-related frailties.
It is a poetic telling of violence and loss in which words are not wasted. A short novel of less than 200 pages, it is spell-binding, and does that most important work of the novelist: to give us a little of the truth and encourage us to seek out more.
As ever in translated works one has to trust the intermediary. Anne McLean's prize-winning credentials and author-link CV speak for themselves. My personal experience of the Spanish language is limited, so all I can say is that it feels right.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
The Armies by Evelio Rosero is in the Top Ten Books Not Originally Written In English.
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