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