by Rosanna O’Donnell
Set in San José, a small, unassuming village caught in the firing line of the long-lasting Colombian Civil War, Evelio Rosero’s The Armies explores the turmoil of life in a war zone through the traumatic experiences of one man. The story follows Ismael, a 70-year old retired schoolteacher, as he copes with life in the danger zone.
The opening pages of the novel centre on Ismael as he copes with the trivial hardships of growing older: a painful knee, an unflattering attraction to younger women, a fading marriage. Ismael and his wife Otilia appear to lead a rather mundane existence. Rosero fills the first pages of the novel with mackaws, fruit and domestic quarrels, lulling the reader into a false sense of security.
The narrative is quickly infected with the harsh realities of civil war, however; soldiers appearing on the streets and citizens disappearing from them. Violence, terror and resentment soon fill the pages, as San José’s residents are caught between the paramilitaries and drug gangs on one side of the fighting, and the revolutionary forces on the other.
First allowing the reader a glimpse, and then a full-fronted gaze, into the relentless reality of a town in limbo, Rosero’s page-turner compellingly glides from one disappearance to the next. Despite the absurdity of having every move questioned and friends going missing, the repression of life in San José seems painfully accepted by Ismael and his neighbours, where disappearances are the norm.
However, as Ismael’s own wife vanishes on a day of terror and disaster when the town finds itself at the centre of the conflict, the narrative takes a turn. Ismael finds safety, but his wife’s fate is not so certain. Alongside a number of Ismael’s neighbours, Otilia disappears without a trace. The story is no longer one of bitter acceptance, but one of blurred perspectives and confusion.
Nobody knows whose side anyone is on. Has everybody taken a side? Has anybody? Does is even matter? Either side could have taken Otilia, and either side could kill Ismael at any moment.
As Ismael loses his grip on reality in the months following his wife’s disappearance, Rosero emotionally channels the communal hardships of life in the middle of war through Ismael’s deteriorating narration. And as the novel gathers pace and speeds to a close, its final, disturbing moments provide a shocking image that awaken you from Ismael’s nightmare, and force you into your own.
Translated from Spanish into English by Anne Mclean, The Armies is an insightful and emotional portrayal of the individual struggles of a man lost without love. Ismael’s internal struggle is endearing and powerful, as his personal sorrow echoes that of the entire village. Rosero’s weaves seamlessly between the motions of everyday life and the absurd, but very real, threat of death, disappearance and sorrow upon a helpless community.
Fast-moving and gripping, The Armies covers a lot of ground, constantly dodging between the individual struggle of Ismael and the collective struggle of his community. The human level at which Rosero approaches this chaotic story of violence and loss excites a wealth of emotions in the reader, enough to rival those flowing through the mind of Ismael himself.
Winner of The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009 and recommended by PEN, The Armies is now available at Morrell Library at the University of York.
Rosanna O’Donnell is an English and Related Literature student at the University of York, and Events and Publicity Officer of York PEN.