Anne McLean’s translation of Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is the winner of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, given by Great Britain’s Independent newspaper to honor excellence in translated works of fiction published in the UK. (It’s McLean’s second nod from the The Independent in five years: she also won the prize in 2004 for her translation of Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas.)
New Directions has now released The Armies in the U.S. The novel—to my knowledge, the first by Rosero to be translated into English—is a deceptively calm, at times even placid look at a staggeringly violent subject: the perpetual atrocities being committed against human life and dignity by the combatants in the seemingly endless civil war in Colombia. Rosero’s ability to write so plainly about such horrors gives the book an unearthly aspect, as if its setting, the town of San José, were as bleak and forbidding as the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the unnamed city in José Saramago’s Blindness whose inhabitants all lose their sight. The residents of San José, too, will become crippled, although by forces entirely human and familiar: the murderous bands of warring forces referred to throughout the novel only as “soldiers,” “guerrillas,” or “paramilitaries.”
Rosero’s narrator, Ismael Pasos, is a retired schoolteacher married to Otilia, also retired from teaching. Two years before the present action of the novel begins, the church in San José is dynamited, leaving fourteen dead and sixty-four wounded. As the novel opens, the town is again relatively quiet, but the small compass of Ismael and Otilia’s world soon starts to be affected by random violence: the mutilated corpse of a newborn has been discovered in a rubbish dump. Shortly afterward, Ismael and Otilia’s next-door neighbor Eusebio is kidnapped. The next day, while out for a walk, Ismael is detained by soldiers, and when he returns home, Otilia is gone. Ismael sets off to find her.
In the course of his wanderings in search of Otilia, Ismael faces one trauma after another. He learns that Eusebio’s twelve-year-old son Eusebito has also been taken away, as has the girl, also twelve, that Eusebio and his wife Geraldina took in after her parents were killed in the church explosion. He encounters wayward gunfire from a frustrated army captain and survives a grenade attack on his home. He discovers that several of his friends have been murdered, including two who were victims of a massacre at a hospital. He receives letters from his married daughter Maria in Popayán, who implores her parents to leave San José before things get worse—letters he is helpless to answer in part because he cannot bring himself to tell Maria that Otilia is missing. He commiserates with Chepe, the café owner whose pregnant wife is kidnapped, and stands his ground to await Otilia’s increasingly unlikely return, even as many of the other surviving townspeople begin an exodus out of San José.
The glimpses of the lives of the people of San José that Rosero weaves into Ismael’s narrative are as varied and engaging as those in Gabriel García Márquez’s In Evil Hour, another enduring work about political violence in a small Colombian town. For example, in a startling flash-forward, we are with Geraldina three months after the hospital massacre, when Eusebito is suddenly returned to her:
Now all her preoccupation is focused entirely on her son so reserved he almost seems dead; in vain she attempts to wake him from the nightmare he is in: she hovers around him every minute of the day, hanging on his every gesture, and falls back desperately on a kind of game of deluded songs, in which she uselessly tries to convince herself that he participates, he, a child who seems mummified, stuck in an urn.
The breathlessness of Ismael’s long sentences in this section add even more weight to the heaviness of Geraldina’s grief, as if on top of everything else she were being starved for air.
By the end of the novel, as Ismael loses track of the days and weeks, Geraldina becomes virtually his only connection to normal life. The book’s final sections are stunning: unnerving in their suspense, tragic in their clear-eyed depiction of the apparently infinite capacity of some human beings—legitimated only by the authority of brute force—to perform acts of supreme degradation upon others.
During it all, as he suffers one indignity after another, and despite the repeated pummeling his spirit takes with each new piece of ghastly news he hears, Ismael remains our diligent witness to unspeakable acts, his instinct for self-preservation not so much a heroic aspect of the human spirit as the stubborn persistence of a wounded animal. Near the end of the book Ismael rouses himself, with one last burst of strength, to continue on, in a passage so beautiful it deserves to be quoted in full:
From the trees a cluster of birds takes flight, after a series of bursts of gunfire, still distant. Far away, another group of stragglers, men and women, rush along the road: it looks as if they are fleeing on tiptoe, trying not to make any noise, with voluntary, disproportionate stealth. Some of the women point to me, terrified, as if commenting to each other on the presence of a ghost. I have sat down on a flat, white rock, under a fragrant magnolia tree; I do not remember this rock either, or this magnolia, when did they appear? With every reason I do not know this street, these corners, things, I have lost my memory, just as if I were sinking and I began to walk one by one down steps which lead to the most unknown, this town, I shall stay alone, I suppose, but in some way I shall make this town my home, and I shall stroll through you, town, until Otilia comes for me.
I shall eat what they have left in their kitchens, I shall sleep in all their beds, I shall recognize their stories by their vestiges, guessing at their lives from the clothes they left behind, my time shall be another time, I shall amuse myself, I am not blind, I shall cure my knee, I shall walk up to the high plateau as a stroll and then return, my cats will continue to feed me, if weeping is all that is left, let it be out of happiness; am I going to cry? No, just burst out laughing with all the unpredictable laughter I have been holding back all this time, and I am going to laugh because I have just seen my daughter, beside me, you have sat down on this rock, I tell her, I hope you understand all the horror that I am, inside, ‘or all the love’—this last I say out loud, laughing—I hope you are drawing near in sympathy with me, that you forgive the only one guilty of the disappearance of your mother, because I left her on her own.
As rendered by Anne McLean, these lines—and many others like them in this remarkable, haunting novel—surely warrant the accolade this translation received in Britain. Now that The Armies has been published here, U.S. readers can readily experience its immense power for themselves.