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.”
The obsession with women is essentially passive and pacifist – the opposite of the violence – but, looking at Geraldina later, Ismael thinks that “she wants to be looked at, admired, pursued, caught, turned over, bitten and licked, killed, revived and killed again for generations”. It’s not true, and he wouldn’t want it to be, but if the women represent peace then this is 70 years of Colombian history speaking. The descriptions of the twin forces of sex and violence are, through the prism of old age, at once clear and detached. They are the centre of the novel, poetic and utterly convincing.
When the violence descends from the surrounding hills into the town itself, Geraldina and Ismael are among the few who, paralysed by the wait for kidnapped loved ones, cannot flee. Spanish critics of the book have noted that the resulting scenes owe a debt to Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, with its narrator who arrives in a town in search of his estranged father, but finds only the ghosts of the dead pleading for prayers.
Ismael is also a soul not unlike the grandparents that Uribe imagined in 1902. The difference is that after a further century of violence, the capacity to say how or why has been lost. This old man, as exhausted as the country he lives in, can only bear witness. It is a story of horror and despair, beautifully told.