Wow. What is it with Latin American writers? Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a master at work. And now his countryman, Evelio Rosero, has spun a bewildering, agonizing tale of war - visceral violence that seeps through the guts of each page, but still Rosero redeems it with the sweet blood of love.
I confess I had virtually zero knowledge of Colombia before reading The Armies. And this is what I learned. "As many as 100,000 people - mostly civilians - have been killed or "disappeared" in the past 20 years in a conflict involving the army, narco-traffickers, guerrillas and paramilitaries, according to Amnesty International." Now, after this brutal introduction, I know I cannot rest till I unearth more of Colombia's undoubtedly fabulous writers. The Armies won last year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and deservedly so.
Rosero gives us Ismael, an old professor, 70 years of age, whose favorite pastime in San Jose (Note to The Times reviewer, it is NOT San Juan, but San Jose) is spying on the beautiful Geraldina, his neighbor, and then squabbling with his wife of 40 years Otilia. The beginning is sensual and rich - a garden of Eden before an abrupt plummeting fall into senseless violence, narrated by Ismael. Colombia has suffered decades of armed conflict with the FARC rebels - and although Rosero does not name them, it is apparent that San Jose is troubled by the friction between the Colombian paramilitary and the rebels - caught in their ceasefire are helpless civilians, people like Geraldina whose husband and son are kidnapped for ransom, the bar owner Chepe's pregnant wife is taken, and even Otilia disappears. As the town begins to disintegrate in the conflict, so too does Ismael's mind. Despite his fondness for other women, it is obvious how deep his love for Otilia is. I remember this particular passage, which moved me. Ismael is at Chepe's, and one of the people at the bar-cafe address him.
"Profesor, stop in at the post office. There were two letters for you."
"Really? So there's still post?"
"The world hasn't come to end, profesor," says one of the ones who laugh.
"What do you know," I say. "Your world may not have ended, but mine has."
Ah, it touched me this passage. The old man, a voyeur of women to the end, still eyeing Geraldina's breasts, but missing Otilia to the end. Ismael is a difficult character to understand, and there are times when Rosero's effort to convey a stream-of-consciousness style narrative confuses the plot a bit. I can't say I grasped all of Ismael's wanderings, but he is an interesting narrator, hard to dislike, but hard to love too. Yet, slowly, I grew to love Ismael. There was an aching vulnerability yet strength to him. And I was right! Ismael waits for Otilia till the end. And what an end! Rosero makes the entire story descend into an orgy of violence so fantastical that it borders on Marquez's famed magic realism style, but frightening because we know that he is hinting at truth. The violence in Colombia has since settled a bit under Alvaro Uribe's tough hands, but drug lords, rebels, corruption and sheer inhumanity always lurk around the corner. Somehow, war is a human pastime.
Verdict : If you would like to discover a little bit more of the world we live in, then I strongly urge you pick up The Armies.