FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

War, Peace and Paramilitaries in Colombia

Think of the vast canvases of the great war novels you’ve read (The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, the archetypal War and Peace) and then shrink your topography drastically (even more so than in The Red Badge of Courage).  If you do that, you can imagine the restricted setting of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, by the celebrated Colombian writer.  Think of a town instead of the vast panorama and you’re likely to get something equivalent of Rosero’s San José, surrounded by coca farms and two warring paramilitary factions, and the sad fate of the town caught in their midst.

I don’t believe that I have ever read a war novel of such simplicity, such understatement.  What happens in this novel is every bit as powerful and disturbing as the classics I mentioned above and a whole host of others.  And Rosero knows how to draw the reader in so that in spite of the small actions of ordinary people, the suspense is just as great as if an entire continent were at war.  Rosero’s genius is subtlety, asserted on every page of Anne McLean’s fine translation of The Armies.

The story begins inauspiciously.  An old man of seventy plus years climbs up on a ladder to pick fruit from a tree.  This is Professor Pasos’ ruse for peeping over a wall into the garden of the next home where a much younger woman is sunbathing naked, with her husband nearby.  Apparently, the professor has done this so frequently that when Geraldina and her husband notice him, the two of them come over to the wall and have an innocent conversation with him as Geraldina stands there still wearing nothing.

Professor Pasos’s wife, Otilia, is also aware of his peeping, but she’s not nearly as comfortable with his fixation. After a scolding by Otilia, Pasos thinks to himself, “If she loved me today as much as she loves her fish and her cats perhaps I would not be peeping over the wall.”  And then he adds a second “Perhaps.”  As if the professor must pay an immediate price for his act, it is only a matter of days before Geraldina’s husband and her children are kidnapped by one of the paramilitary groups.  And Otilia wanders off during the chaos—fighting between the two armies—that follows.

That’s half of the novel, low-keyed in its presentation thus far, but immediately events become much more chaotic.  San José is caught between the two groups.  The professor’s own house, and the houses of others, are redoubts for both sides.  Pasos remarks, “It seems the war is going in my own house.”  But both sides ignore him, though he is taunted, threatened all the time—especially when he walks through the streets searching for Otilia, whose body has not shown up.  Nor has he been presented with a ransom note, as have others in the form of their spouses’ and children’s fingers.  Geraldina’s own son was “returned” so traumatized that he’s mute.

Months pass, and the professor continues to hope that his wife is still alive.  He also reflects that this time in his country’s lengthy war over narcotics San José isn’t as lucky as it’s been in the past:

“…displaced people from other towns used to pass through our town; we used to see them cross the highway, interminable lines of men and children and women, silent crowds with neither bread nor destinations.  Years ago,  three thousand indigenous people stayed for a long time in San José, but eventually had to leave due to extreme food shortages in impoverished shelters.  Now it is our turn.”

What is understated becomes the center of Rosero’s account of an old man’s grief and his peregrinations to find his wife of many years.  When frightened by the soldiers, he wets himself, stating that the embarrassment has been caused by old age, not fear.  As he wanders through an increasing maze of abandoned streets and houses, he realizes that he is losing his mind.  Almost everyone else has been killed, including the town’s doctor—so revered by both armies that earlier, but no longer, they had agreed to keep him alive.

In a final skirmish with several soldiers, who argue among themselves whether the old man should be killed, one of them remarks, “We don’t have to bother killing this old man….  He looks dead.” Professor Pasos has already drawn that conclusion himself.  As the remaining survivor in San José, as a man without his family and his friends, isn’t his life already over?

The Armies is a short read—at most three or four hours.  You may find yourself finishing the book in one sitting.  Evelio Rosero’s unflinching story is as powerful as any of  its celebrated anti-war predecessors.

The Armies.
By Evelio Rosero
Translated by Anne McLean
New Directions, 197 pp., $14.95.

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael Duggin
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Frank Clemente
The GOP Tax Bill is Creating Jobs…But Not in the United States
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
December 13, 2018
John Davis
What World Do We Seek?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail