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In 1902, after Colombia's Thousand Days War, Rafael Uribe Uribe, a general, looked to the future: "We have witnessed Colombia's last civil war. Our grandchildren, who will be born after this cycle of horrors, will find it hard to understand what kind of insanity led to such bloodshed among brothers. But we will be able to tell them, from our old age, exactly how and why ... [we] had the sad privilege of witnessing the final hurricane in all its terrible devastation."

Unfortunately, that was not the final hurricane. Evelio Rosero's The Armies is set in more or less present day Colombia, but the kind of horror it depicts would be equally plausible at other stages of the 20th century. The armies in question - leftist guerrillas, drug traffickers, counter-guerrilla paramilitaries and the government forces - fight over and brutalise the town where the story takes place. They are vague entities, hardly distinguishable from each other and, in their contempt for civilian life, not worth distinguishing. The cruel order they present is fundamentally unchanged from that which presided over La Violencia, the mid-20th century period of civil conflict that left 300,000 Colombians dead.

The story begins in a bubble of peace which could also have occurred at many points in Colombia's past. Ismael, the 70-year-old narrator, spends sunny mornings in his back garden, happily coexisting with his wife. He is keenly, almost exclusively, aware of the sensuality and sexuality of younger women, and his chief pursuit is spying, while up a ladder picking oranges, on his neighbour, the beautiful Geraldina, as she sunbathes naked. He also notices Gracielita, Geraldina's 12-year-old adopted daughter, and every other female he encounters, but he is no Humbert Humbert. He looks at the girls with an impotent ache, but also with love.

Each one he becomes fixated upon, whether in the flesh or in his numerous flights of memory, brings with her an associated story or image of violence. As he was staring at his future wife for the first time, 40 years earlier, the man next to him at the bus stop happened to have his head blown off by a child assassin: "They went on recurring, becoming associated, in an almost absurd way, in my memory: first death, then nakedness."

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