The Armies Evelio Rosero (trans. Anne McLean). New Directions, 199pp.
There is a moment in the film Werckmeister Harmonies in which a rioting mob ransacks a hospital. When they come upon a frail, ancient man standing naked before them, the mob collectively recognizes something symbolic or pathetic in him and quietly disperses. Though the old man does not appear in the book from which the film was made, László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, the mob similarly shamed into retreat.
In Evelio Rosero’s spare novel The Armies, another ancient man is faced with a cruel mob, but there will be no epiphanic recognition to disperse it. The Armies, the first of Rosero’s novels to be translated into English, describes the old age of Ismael Pasos, an elderly retired teacher who lives in the Colombian village of San José and has a penchant for voyeurism. In his retirement, Ismael has realized his personal version of Eden by looking over the wall at the beautiful neighbor suntanning in the nude. It is clear from the outset that all that matters to Ismael is to admire women.
I spy on her from here: without resting on the back of her chair, knees together but calves apart, very slowly, delicately, she removes her sandals, leans her body even further: revealing her neck, which is like a mast. . . . I ask nothing more of life than this possibility, to see this woman without her knowing that I’m looking at her, to see this woman when she knows I’m looking, but to see her: my only explanation for staying alive.
He peeps, he spies, he openly lusts, and yet his perversion is relatively benign, if not impotent. He reminisces about first meeting his wife Otilia, bursting in on her in the bathroom after witnessing the killing of a man. He has always associated “in an almost absurd way, in my memory: first death, then nakedness.” As warring paramilitaries and guerrillas increasingly take over the town, the abduction of Otilia unseats Ismael from his Eden.
The two armed factions surrounding San José are equally destructive, equally aimless, and both operate without ideals or morals. Rosero refuses to explicitly provide causes and goals for the conflict; what do they matter to the suffering people caught in the middle? This blank slate invites the reader to attempt to contextualize or find symbols in the novel. One can look for literary references as well, from the madness of Hamlet in Otilia’s name and Ismael’s wish “to sleep, I hope not to dream” to similarities to the trapped denizens of the dreamlike ghost town of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo (a book of similar length and tone). Ultimately, The Armies stands well on its own as an engrossing tale and needs no reference or interpretation beyond one’s own emotions and sense of justice.
The entirety of the book follows Ismael’s first-person narration as he totters around the village, solving (or failing to solve) the dilemmas that face him. Because of his advanced age and diminishing memory, nearly everything is a monumental challenge for Ismael, from the quest to cure his aching knee to finding his way. This focus on the tribulations of an aging man beset by the outside world is reminiscent of the work of Samuel Beckett (in fact, Ismael’s dragging leg is a dead ringer for Molloy), and the titular armies could be considered as stand-ins for the unseen gods and manipulators of Beckett’s plays. But unlike Beckett, the style and the simplicity of The Armies encourages a swift read, making it a book that is difficult to put down. Perhaps this is because the book is an antiwar novel without politics, one that only concerns itself with consequences and is all the more moving for it.
The Armies has picked up a number of honors around the world, most recently The Independent’s Foreign Fiction prize. Why is this slim novel being so rewarded? Politics, perhaps: everybody loves a victim. I might also suggest it is equally due to the strength of the story’s progression. Look at the choices made in the design of the novel. While there is a clear descent from Paradiso to Inferno, most of the elements are in place at the beginning: violence, kidnapping, and fear. But it begins with an overload of sensual detail, as Ismael takes note of everything around him, all the beauty in particular. Phrases are strung together to create long sentences that encourage fast, rhythmic reading. Then Rosero slows down and enhances the action when it counts—the day when Ismael’s wife disappears stretches across fifty pages out of a scant two hundred. In the absence of his wife, Ismael’s mental state declines and the narrative reflects it: time jumps an hour, a day, three months. This gives the impression that he is barely taking note of life; he is barely living at all anymore.
Rosero has expressed his fondness for Crime and Punishment, and there is a distinct element of Raskolnikov to be found in Ismael. He spends the second half of the book wandering in a daze, often acting unconsciously (Ismael’s affliction is more dementia than guilt, but the effect is similar). He continually asks questions of himself, reprimanding his own foolishness. For all the wandering that the narrator does back and forth through the town, the plot composition is tight and economical, and often a striking scene is revisited later by an incident that resolves what had come before, following Chekhov’s admonition that if a gun appears on stage, it must eventually be fired. Everything and everyone in San José will eventually be affected by the armies. This adds an element of relentlessness.
Themes creep in indirectly through repetition. Perhaps to highlight the indifference of the killers, several deaths are described in such a way as to make them seem almost indistinguishable from life. One man is shot in the head and still looks like he wants to enjoy his ice cream; another dies still leaning on his cane; a third fakes his death to avoid detection; and one mother cries out over and over to her son’s killers, “why don’t you kill him again?” The point seems to be that not even death will end the tragedy. Fittingly, the epigraph that starts the novel is from Moliere’s Le Malade Imaginaire, wherein a man faking death in a chair asks whether it is wise to do so (the answer coming when Moliere himself fell ill performing the role and later died). The appearance of a seemingly animated corpse in a chair late in The Armies echoes Moliere’s scene to horrifying effect.
But how lovely, in a book brimming with sex and war, to find tenderness in the characters. Their faults are matched with virtues: Ismael’s perversion is sweetly replaced by longing for his wife. Rosero fills his town with complex but familiar types: a village drunkard, a priest, a schoolteacher, a doctor, a street vendor, and the requisite scary old loner on the edge of town. There is hope in the villagers, even to the last, even if fleeting. They expect disappointment, and they accept it to the extent that the ordinariness of their lives becomes an uncomfortable companion to the terror of their situation. For instance, a man tells Ismael about a kidnapping he witnessed:
He was crying. Remember he is, or was, pretty fat, twice the size of his wife. He just couldn’t go on. They were looking for a mule to carry him. There was a woman as well: Carmina Lucero, the baker, remember her? From San Vicente, Otilia’s town. Otilia must know her, how is Otilia?
“That means she’s still well. The last time I saw her was at the market. She was buying leeks, how did she cook them?”
“I don’t remember.”
“They took the baker too, poor thing.”
That simple detail about the leeks suggests a life beyond the terror. The village brims with personality, which stands it in relief against the hell that it becomes.
Not all in the fever dream that Ismael presents to us is perfectly crafted; certain scenes, such as one with an uncaged bird that refuses to fly away, feel a bit familiar. And Rosero strains at times to find ways to put characters in Ismael’s path to provide their exposition. But as a whole this is a focused story as much as it is a presentation of the inhumanity forced upon us by war. The impotent and exhausted old man, entirely spent, stripped of dignity and confronted by the endlessly devouring and irrational armies, unable to care for himself, unable to leave, wanting to die, unable to die; this searing image lingers well beyond the day or two required to read this book.
Travis Godsoe is a native of Bangor, Maine, and a graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program in creative writing. His short fiction has appeared in The Puckerbrush Review and 5_trope, and he has recently completed a novel, Barnacle. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the writer Julie Novacek Godsoe.
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